Winners of six consecutive games, the Boston Celtics entered Monday night’s matchup as one of the hottest teams in the NBA, seemingly clicking on every level over the past two weeks. But if they thought the Oklahoma City Thunder — winners of just 46 games over the last two seasons — were going to make for easy prey, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, the Celtics were forced to weather an offensive tirade on the part of the young Thunder, trailing for much of the night before pulling ahead late in the fourth to finally secure the victory.
Despite a poor 9-of-23 shooting night from the field, Jayson Tatum led the way for Boston with 27 points and made a defensive impact with 3 steals and 3 blocks. Right behind him in scoring was Jaylen Brown, who scored 26 on 11-of-21 from the field but didn’t record a made three. Derrick White, Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard combined for 32 crucial points off the bench. On the other end, four Thunder players recorded multiple made threes, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his early season scoring outburst with 37 points on the night.
Thus far this season, these haven’t been the lowly Thunder teams we’ve become accustomed to since the departure of Russell Westbrook. Led by Gilgeous-Alexander — the NBA’s 7th-leading scorer — Oklahoma City entered the evening with a surprisingly healthy record of 6-7, fresh off a 145-point scoring performance in regulation against the Knicks. That offensive juice carried over to the early minutes of tonight’s game, as an early 10-0 Thunder run seemed to put a sluggish Boston squad (33% shooting in the early minutes) on its heels. The Boston offense found its stride after an early Joe Mazzulla timeout, but the Thunder scored 35 first-quarter points to lead by three entering the second.
It was a notably poor start for Tatum this evening. Through the beginning of the second quarter, he connected on just one of his eight shot attempts, with six of those misses coming on (largely open) looks from three. There was some evident frustration, after Tatum picked up the Celtics’ second technical foul of the game after being whistled for his second personal early in the quarter.
The T was perhaps the jolt Tatum needed, though, as he finally converted on his first three-pointer of the evening shortly thereafter, before plowing his way into the paint moments later to get himself to the free throw line. Despite the early struggles, he still put up 15 first-half points, second on the team to Brown (18). Unfortunately, though, while the Celtics began to find themselves on offense, they had no answers on the other end of the court. The Thunder piled up 69 points in the first half — the worst mark the Celtics have allowed in a half this season — and entered the halftime break with a seven-point lead, 69-62.
The second half began much as the first half ended: the Thunder hitting absolutely everything, while the Celtics generated open looks but failed to convert on them. Oklahoma City continued to pile up made threes, while the Celtics laid brick after brick — including a possession that featured two offensive rebounds and three missed threes. They just couldn’t string together enough consecutive plays to make any progress, and as a result, the Thunder maintained their halftime advantage, entering the final frame with a 96-89 lead.
It was a late surge by Payton Pritchard that kept the Thunder lead within grasp at the end of the third quarter, and the third-year guard kept up the momentum early in the fourth with an early three. Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey answered with a long three of his own, however, and the two teams mostly treaded water for the early part of the quarter.
Finally, Tatum came to life, drawing a goaltend and converting a layup and dunk to drag the Celtics to a 107-point tie with just under six minutes remaining, prompting a Thunder timeout. A few possessions later, he inched the Celtics into a one-point lead with a 1-for-2 trip to the free throw line, before finishing a layup moments later to push the lead to three. Oklahoma City tied the game on an and-1 basket interference call, but Marcus Smart’s first three-pointer of the game proved to be the dagger, and the Celtics finally put the Thunder away.
Next up, the Celtics will hit the road, kicking off a three-game tip with a matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, this Wednesday at 7:30 PM on ESPN.