Following a sweep of the team’s recent three-game road trip, Boston returned to the Garden to host Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Led by Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, the Celtics put on a show for the home crowd before eventually falling prey to yet another super-human performance from Westbrook.
The Thunder guard poured in 20 fourth quarter points, including two particularly devastating threes late. He finished with 45 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
How you like me now?!
The now immortal words of Kirk Cousins rang true for the Celtics tonight. With early season injuries and set backs possibly in the rear view, Boston has strung together some good looking basketball over the past few games, and tonight the C’s got off to an impressive start. Horford and Isaiah logged six & seven points, respectively. And led by Amir Johnson, the rest of the starters more than did their part. All the while, Westbrook and co. slowly and surely kept tacking points on the board.
Prior to the game, Coach Stevens explained that Isaiah and Horford in particular might be a little tired after a long week on the road, and as such, the bench saw a long stretch of play in the first half. For all the talk of a confused or listless platoon of reserves, tonight Boston’s second-unit did perfectly fine. By the end of the second, seven costly turnovers had put the C’s in a 58-54 hole.
In the third, following an offensive flagrant foul, Al Horford has his Kirk Cousins moment. Rather than yelling out You like that, he expressed himself on the court.
— CSN New England (@CSNNE) December 24, 2016
Defense proved to be an interesting factor in this one. Throughout the course of the night, Boston showed a propinquity to sacrifice open shooting for gritty defense down low. A thunder player couldn’t get more than a few feet inside of the three point line before a second or even third defender stepped up. At halftime, assistant coach Jamie Young explained that the team would rather an open shot from the likes of Domantas Sabonis than to let Westbrook or Steven Adams get comfortable down low. Problematically, a few missed rotations led to easy Thunder points, which made it difficult for the Celtics to establish any sort of lead.
Down the stretch, it was none other than Mr. 4th Quarter himself who gave the Celtics a real shot in this one. He opened the final frame with 10 quick points, pulling Boston within striking distance. And IT just kept chugging. He sunk improbable shot after improbable shot, including this doozy.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) December 24, 2016
Despite Isaiah’s heroics, his counterpart on OKC was able to best him. Westbrook turned it on with just a few minutes left in the game, and really let the Celtics have it. A few Boston turnovers were matched with Westbrook threes, and Boston’s fate was sealed. It was an encouraging showing and possibly a sign of good things to come. As Coach Stevens explained after the game, the C’s simply came up short tonight.
“As a team we didn’t quite do enough to win”
Westbrook: As good as advertised
What was most remarkable was how quietly Westbrook was able to rack up stats. He scores in a blink of an eye, and taking 25 shots lends itself to a high volume of points. His assists, meanwhile, seem to be a natural symptom of a Celtics defense hell-bent on crowding the paint. And given his pedal-to-the-metal mentality, fighting for rebounds the way that he did tonight seems to also make sense. In a weird way, it wasn’t a particularly impressive as Westbrook filled the stat sheet.
The fourth quarter, however, changed everything. After Isaiah’s explosion, Westbrook himself caught fire, nailing two punishing threes to ice the game. It was the perfect way to underscore just how remarkable a player he is. Few players can do what Westbrook does, but when they come to town, Boston will need more answers than they had tonight.
Westbrook’s big night was, in part, bolstered by the exceptional play of rookie Domantas Sabonis. He was a direct beneficiary of Boston’s sometimes over-zealous crash defense, and his sharp-shooting gave the Thunder offense an important element of depth. With 17 first half points, he helped OKC keep pace whenever the Celtics found a rythym. Although he averaged just six ppg heading into tonight, the 20-year old finished with a career high of 2o points.
Amir Johnson revival
The aforementioned Amir Johnson really had himself a game, and early on he was making things happen for the Celtics. His versatility and athleticism have always been promised, but there has been time during his tenure with the C’s where this didn’t always come true.
Tonight was not one of those nights. Amir was a true scoring threat, and more to the point cleaned up his teammates’ messes. His three offensive rebounds were critical, as were his two steals. For Boston to keep pace with the better teams in the league, players outside of Thomas and Horford will need to step up, and in part Johnson’s good play is what kept the Celtics in the game down to the end.
Against the Thunder we saw more of the same from the Celtics. Moments of sheer brilliance from Isaiah Thomas and a powerful suggestion that this Celtics starting unit truly is one of the best in the league. We also played witness to some stretches where linger questions related to rebounding and rim protection stood firm. All in all, it was a game the Celtics certainly put themselves in a position to win. It ultimately came down to a battle of All Star point guards, and unfortunately for Celtics fans, Russell Westbrook reigned supreme.
The Celtics are on to New York, and will play the Knicks at 12pm on Christmas Day. Happy Holidays!
Please follow me on Twitter @CTabatabaie