If the Celtics were looking at last year’s standings, it’s possible that they didn’t circle January 2nd on their calendar this season. The Thunder finished 40-42 and we’re knocked out of the Play-In Tournament in a blowout to the Timberwolves.
But what a difference a year makes.
Entering Tuesday’s clash of the titans, Oklahoma City was 22-9 and coming off blowouts of the Western Conference 1-seed Minnesota and defending champion Denver. Eligibility discussions aside, Chet Holmgren is playing like a Rookie of the Year candidate and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is legitimately in the Most Valuable Player conversation.
“That’s a talented, young team. I don’t believe this was some fluke game for them,” Kristaps Porzingis said after the 127-123 loss to the Thunder. “They’ve been playing really well. They’re top of the West. They’re a really good team to go up against and [it was] a really good experience for us.”
After weathering a Thunder storm in the first half, the Celtics held a 3-point at halftime, but a 40-25 third quarter that included 16 points from SGA had Boston playing catch up the rest of the way.
Head coach Joe Mazzulla pointed to Boston’s inability to complete possessions at the rim and subsequently limit OKC’s transition game as the turning point. Here’s Barstool Sports’ Dan Greenberg with some of the confounding numbers:
Celts are 19th in the NBA in restricted area FG% in their 7 losses (63.3%)— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) January 3, 2024
4th best restricted FG% in their 26 wins (71%)
Celts were 17-29 in the restricted area tonight (58.6%) and 6-16 in the paint (37.5%)
To make matters worse, the Thunder hit 18-for-40 from behind the arc. They’re the league’s best shooting team from behind the arc (39.3%). However, the Celtics are the most prolific (42.8 3FGAs per night on 37.4% shooting); despite Jaylen Brown missing all eight of his three-point attempts, Tuesday’s loss is just the first time all year that they’ve lost a game when the team hits at least a third of their threes (15-of-40).
Boston staged a late game comeback with some timely shooting, points off turnovers, and adjusting their defense. SGA finished with 36 points, but didn’t hit a field goal in the final frame with Jayson Tatum (30 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists) often taking on the defensive assignment.
“We stayed square and didn’t give him angles to the basket which is hard to do because it’s every single possession,” Mazzulla said of bottling up Gilgeous-Alexander to close the game. “I thought in the fourth quarter, we did a better job. We picked up a little higher. We stayed square, didn’t give him any angles and if we did, we had guys at the rim. We gave multiple efforts.”
But in the end, Oklahoma City added another statement win to their resume and put the entire league on notice. With armchair GM’s buzzing about the Thunder needed to make an upgrade before the trade deadline, they proved last night and over the last five games that they’re already at contender status.
“They’re a tough team to guard and I think the whole league is trying to figure it out,” Derrick White said.
The Thunder don’t visit TD Garden for another three months on April 3rd.