Kendrick Perkins made his return to Boston for the first time since being traded with Nate Robinson in exchange for Nenad Kristic and Jeff Green before the trade deadline last season, but he wasn't the reason the Boston Celtics lost 97-88 to Perk's Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night. Perkins played well and managed the rotations on the back end of an OKC defense that held the Celtics to just 39.1 percent shooting in the game, but the night belonged to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The two stars combined to score 32 of their team's first 46 points and closed the game by either scoring or assisting on all of final 16 points the Thunder produced to close out the game on the road. Durant finished with a game-high 28 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, while Westbrook followed closely with 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists.
On an emotional night for Perkins, who finished with just 7 points and 5 rebounds, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks elected to call the big man's number on the first possession, as if to say: "let's get the jitters out right away and turn this into just another basketball game." Kendrick worked a mid-post face up against Jermaine O'Neal and turned it into an unsuccessful running hook in the lane that caught more backboard than rim, but things did settle down pretty quickly after that for the Thunder. The Celtics spent much of the night on their heels, trying to counter-punch Oklahoma City runs and stay in the game. Boston jumped out to an early 8-4 lead in the first quarter, but they never again held the lead after Westrbook drained a 14-foot jumper to give the Thunder a 13-11 lead with 4:27 remaining in the opening period. The most telling sequence for both teams came in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics closed the gap to 78-76 on a Paul Pierce three-pointer with just over five minutes left in the game.
The Thunder immediately responded with a certain aplomb that fans in the TD Garden have come to expect, just not from the visiting team. With the game on the line, Scott Brooks didn't draw up elaborate plays with orchestrated preliminary movement or secondary misdirection. Rather, he put the ball in the hands off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in isolation sets and ran the "here it is, try to stop us" offense that very few teams in the league can even think about trying. This is how the Thunder sealed the game after the Celtics pulled within two points:
- Kevin Durant set up at the top of the key beyond the arc and operated in isolation against Paul Pierce. He applied a right-to-left crossover and step-back to create space for a clean look and drained a three.
- Durant bluffed the pick and roll with Kendrick Perkins, caught Pierce and KG out of position, and opened up the driving lane for a lightning quick right-handed dunk.
- Westbrook initiated a post isolation against Rondo in the right corner, used his dribble to attack the paint and skipped the ball to a wide open Thabo Sefolosha for a three when the defense collapsed on him.
- Westbrook laid the ball off for another Durant iso against Pierce on the right wing, but slowly drifted to the weak side after the initial pass. As his defender (Rondo) moved to double-team Durant, he shifted to the left wing on the three-point line, where he took a swing pass from James Harden and converted the open look.
- As Pierce fronted Durant to deny the entry pass for another right-wing isolation, Durant set a screen for Westbrook and freed him up for another clean look at a three, which he also hit.
OKC mixed in some misses along the way, but all of their made baskets in the clutch moments of the game featured a simple interplay between their two best players. By the time Westbrook hit the final three-pointer listed in the sequence listed above, the Thunder had pushed their lead to 92-85 with just 51 seconds remaining and played out the game in cruise control. While the Thunder relied on two of the league's best players for their offense in the clutch, the Celtics got zero points from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce during that same stretch, and needed two threes by Mickael Pietrus to keep the margin semi-respectable. In other words, there are some solid reasons why these teams are heading in two very different directions early in the 2011-12 season.
With the win on Monday and a tandem loss by the Chicago Bulls (sans Derrick Rose), OKC now owns the NBA's best record. Boston has now lost five games in a row and sits at a very disappointing 4-8 overall. Rajon Rondo finished just one rebound and one assist short of a triple-double (12 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists), while Paul Piece led the Celtics' attack with 24 points on 8-15 shooting. In the first timeout in the opening quarter, the Celtics displayed a video tribute featuring Perkins' highlights from his 7+ seasons with the team on the scoreboard, something he called "unbelievable" and a gesture he "really appreciated." Here is a look at the video tribute from a fan's perspective: