After a clueless offensive performance in the first game of Rajon Rondo's suspension, the Boston Celtics switched gears and managed a like-kind defensive effort in their 119-104 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night. Boston started a small ball lineup with Mickael Pietrus at power forward and Kevin Garnett at center, and jumped out to a 22-12 lead early in the first quarter, but then the Thunder responded with a devastating 30-3 run. OKC lost their focus down the stretch after posting 72 points by intermission and building a 23-point cushion, but the Celtics never got any closer than six after that massive first half onslaught.
Kevin Durant opened the scoring with a 16-foot jumper, but the Thunder got in trouble early. They hit just 1-of-10 shots to open the game and struggled to slow down the stretch attack employed by the Celtics. Then the NBA's most explosive offense nearly brought the house down . It wasn't quite the Nuggets game from Monday night -- where Kevin Durant scored a career-high 51 points, Russell Westbrook added 40 points and Serge Ibaka put together a 14-point, 15-rebound, 11-block triple-double -- but they did recapture the essence of concentrated dominance from that showing.
The Celtics tried man, zone, fast-paced transition offense and slower sets, but nothing they did stopped the Thunder from turning a 12-22 deficit into a 42-25 lead in just under seven minutes. Oklahoma City swarmed on defense, trapped in the corners and exploded into transition opportunities to the delight of the sellout crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Just because you may never see it again in an NBA game, here's what a 30-3 run looks like (via ESPN.com play-by-play):
Celtics head coach Doc Rivers opted for simplicity and distilled the impact of that run into a single sentence after the game:
"That stretch just killed us because if you get down to this team the likelihood of you making a comeback without someone making a shot is almost impossible."
quote via Randy Renner of NBA.com.
Almost impossible is exactly the right choice of words to describe Boston's second half comeback bid. All told, OKC scored 60 points during a 17-minute span that extended to the end of the second period. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Daequan Cook pasted Boston with a season-high 72 points on 56.5 percent shooting and a 14-2 team assist-to-turnover ratio before the intermission. When Boston outscored the Thunder 55-47 after the break and forced 12 turnovers, it did feel like a comeback. However, it also felt impossible. The term "insurmountable lead" comes to mind.
Even so, the Celtics never stopped believing. Kevin Garnett front-loaded his 23-point, 13-rebound double-double as an effective roll man in weak-side high pick-and-roll, while Paul Pierce and Ray Allen turned up their production in the second half. Pierce struggled early on, but he worked hard to get good looks and scored 18 of his 23 points in the final two quarters. Without Rondo to distribute, Pierce (eight assists) and Allen (seven assists) picked up the slack and turned the extra defensive attention throw their way into opportunities for Garnett, Pietrus and others.
Backup point guard Avery Bradley -- 12 points, five assists three turnovers and six fouls -- didn't really orchestrate the C's offense, but he did lay claim to several of the most exciting moments of the night. Bradley stormed coast-to-coast on a fast break in the second quarter and threw down in Kevin Durant's grill, and threw in two blocks on Russell Westbrook for good measure. Boston's backup point guard exhibited an impressive ferocity, but the night still belonged to his start counterpart and his running mates.
Westbrook sliced and diced his way to a game-high 31 points and six assists, while Durant added 28 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals in the win. James Harden thrived in the open court and added a team-high seven assists to pair with his 17-point effort, and Daequan Cook spaced the floor well as he pumped in 17 more. Those four players conspired to create the uncontrollable run in the first half.
Those four also closed the door on the Celtics after they pulled within six points with 3:31 left in the game. Harden drew a foul and hit a pair of free throws, Durant banked in 15-foot jumper off an assist from Cook, Harden created an easy dunk for Serge Ibaka and suddenly the margin moved back to double digits with 1:36 left. OKC outscored Boston 50-36 on points in the paint despite just 8 from Kendrick Perkins and 4 from Serge Ibaka, thanks to the relentless efforts of Harden, Westbrook and Durant.
The Thunder won their 11th straight game at Chesapeake Energy Arena and moved to 26-7 overall with the win. Boston dropped their fifth consecutive game heading into the All-Star break and fell to 15-17.
Rondo had to watch the game from the team hotel on his 26th birthday as he served the back end of his two-game suspension for throwing the ball at the chest of an official on Sunday in a game against the Detroit Pistons. At least he got some good news in the process. Roughly 30 minutes before tip, the NBA officially announced Rondo will replace injured Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson as an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve.