Before the Celtics faced the Thunder on Tuesday, injured players Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all took seats on the bench. It was a clear reminder of what Boston is still missing.
The time without them has been bumpy, and much of this night seemed no different. The Celtics were determined but sloppy. They played hard, but the other team had Russell Westbrook.
Sometimes, though, superstars miss free throws in the final minute, scattered plays end up with unlikely endings, fans begin to believe, and 100-99 wins appear out of nowhere, as this one seemed to after Marcus Morris drilled the game-winning 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds remaining.
As point guard Terry Rozier put it: “Basketball is a strange game.”
After Westbrook made a pair of free throws to give his team a 98-92 lead with 24.7 seconds left, some fans made their way up the aisles and into the chilly night, or at least peered down from concourses as a seemingly inevitable loss was finalized.
Jayson Tatum made a layup with 17.6 seconds to play, and the Celtics quickly fouled Westbrook. He made one of two foul shots, and at the other end, Rozier pulled up for a 28-foot 3-pointer with 12.7 seconds left.
The Celtics then fouled Carmelo Anthony, and the 77 percent free throw shooter missed both attempts. There was hope.
“I mean, how many times has that happened in his career?” Celtics coach Brad Stevens asked. “But, you know, we’re just hoping he misses one, and then thinking hopefully you have a chance.”
After a timeout, Tatum drove toward the basket but lost control of the ball just enough to make a shot quite difficult. So he fired a pass to Morris along the right arc. The forward pumped, took one dribble to his right, and drained the 3-pointer.
Westbrook’s 3 at the buzzer was well short, and the Celtics closed out one of the most unlikely endings you will see.
In the locker room afterward, Morris said it was probably the biggest shot of his career. Tatum, the talented rookie, walked by.
“It was a really ideal pass,” he said loudly, smiling. “Good shot though.”
The Celtics’ personnel shortages had seemed to sap them of some of their verve — and, of course, their talent.
Although they have all but cemented the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, this would have been their fourth loss in five games. And with just 11 games left in the regular season, this is no way to gather momentum for a playoff run.
So there was a sense of relief and happiness and excitement in the locker room afterward. It seemed important.
“I mean, it’s almost hard to believe,” forward Al Horford said. “But our whole thing was we’re just going to keep playing and play until the last second of the game. I felt like guys really kept their composure. We didn’t panic and we really gave it all we had. I’m proud. This is a big win.”
Tatum finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds to lead Boston. Morris added 21, none bigger than his powerful 3-pointer at the end. Westbrook had 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists for the Thunder, whose six-game winning streak was snapped.
“They just kept playing the next possession,” Stevens said of the Celtics, “and we were fortunate that that shot went down.”
Daniel Theis is out for the season, and Smart is expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season. Brown, meanwhile, is progressing from the concussion he sustained nearly two weeks ago, and it was a good sign that he was able to sit on the bench amid all the throbbing lights and artificial noise pumped through the arena.
But the Celtics revealed some slightly unsettling news before the game, when Stevens said Irving’s sore left knee, which has now caused him to miss four games in a row and will likely cost him at least four more as he stays behind while the Celtics depart for a weeklong trip.
Stevens and the Celtics are continuing to insist that they do not believe Irving’s knee is a serious issue, that they just want him rested and ready for the playoffs, yet it is also true that they initially believed he would be back by now. But the undermanned Celtics have continued to push and plod without Irving and the others, even if it is usually not elegant.
Their first half was messy and unsettled. They committed 11 turnovers. They made just 4 of 17 3-pointers. They air-balled shots from close range and from far away. They fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter and the arena was almost silent.
But then Boston unspooled a 21-6 run that included a one-minute sequence in which Rozier hit a 3, threw down a dunk off a steal, and carved through the lane for a layup. Boston briefly took the lead and trailed just 48-45 at the break.
In the third quarter, Westbrook scored 11 points during his team’s 21-7 burst that reclaimed the lead. Once again, though, the Celtics were resilient. During the final 30 seconds of the third, Shane Larkin made a layup and then banked in a 3 at the buzzer, pulling Boston within 75-73.
With 7:06 left in regulation, Larkin hit a 3 to give the Celtics an 82-81 lead. That was near the start of a 3:40 scoring drought for the Thunder, but the Celtics were unable to take advantage as they missed their next seven shots, including six 3-pointers.
The Thunder found a rhythm by drilling four 3-pointers in a row. The last, a dart from the left corner by Corey Brewer, gave Oklahoma City a 93-87 lead with 1:54 left. But, it turned out, the Celtics were simply storing their magic for the finish.