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Thunder Force Celtics to Play Different Style and Lineups in Loss

The Celtics drastically altered their closing lineup for the first time when fully healthy for the first time this season trailing by 18 early in the fourth quarter on Tuesday against an unconventionally dynamic two-way Thunder attack on the road. Joe Mazzulla sat Jrue Holiday for the final 8:25 in favor of Payton Pritchard before the Celtics went on a 27-11 run to pull within one possession multiple times late, unable to generate enough stops in the final 41 seconds to tie or take a lead in what became a 127-123 loss.

The matchup between the league’s two best teams to this point challenged Boston in ways they responded to and learned from on the fly. Derrick White began the game struggling to front Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting with seven assists, with Holiday in position to switch. Gilgeous-Alexander also torched Holiday for 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting in their nearly five minutes against each other. Boston adjusted in the fourth quarter, shifting Jayson Tatum onto Gilgeous-Alexander and limiting him to three points on 1-for-4 shooting across 14 late possessions.

Holiday, who missed Sunday’s win over the Spurs with an elbow injury, did not appear on the injury report before Tuesday’s game but played his most off-balance game all season. He took threes on his first three attempts before attacking the rim twice on the same possession, coming up short against crowds of Thunder as his struggles at the rim continued. Holiday finished stronger outside, 2-of-5 from three, in line with his production there this season along with five rebounds and seven assists. After a flat-footed floater fell short late in the third, he didn’t shoot again during his stint to begin the fourth.

Jaylen Brown also struggled playing in crowds, drawing back-to-back free throw trips following Kristaps Porzingis blocks to push the Celtics’ pace early before finishing 4-for-18 and missing all eight threes he took in his worst showing since November. He landed in foul trouble midway through the first despite largely guarding the Thunder’s perimeter players, picking up a loose ball and offensive foul through his first nine minutes.

The Celtics only trailed by one possession entering the second but turned the ball over five times over the first 13 minutes of the game before finishing with 14. They entered having record six of their lowest 10 turnover totals all year across their most recent nine games. Double-big lineups, also effective in recent weeks, only further crowded the lane with Oklahoma City defenders as they easily negated a Tatum-Luke Kornet pick-and-roll as only Payton Pritchard record baskets during a 2-for-8 opening six minutes to the quarter. Boston turned it over three times during that stretch with Kornet and Al Horford playing together.

Despite going small with Pritchard late, Oshae Brissett did not play and the Celtics returned to Kornet to begin the fourth quarter in what became a devastating 10-4 Thunder swing that increased Oklahoma City’s lead from 12 to 18. Boston’s starters mostly held the line in the loss, with Porzingis (+3) and Derrick White (+5) winning their minutes in another pair of dominant displays. Tatum found himself midway through the game too, hitting difficult mid-range shots over Thunder wings after beginning the third quarter with three straight misses. His free throw, pair of driving finishes, a catch-and-shoot three and assist to Sam Hauser for three kept the Celtics within single-digits throughout the frame. Boston’s defense constantly faltered though.

Boston had success late last month hedging away from its opponent’s worst offensive players and got too comfortable leaving Josh Giddey alone in a game where he finished 4-for-7 from deep. Giddey hit back-to-back threes to begin the third, before assisting on three straight baskets and hitting a fadeaway two over Hauser to build a 90-80 lead. Isaiah JoeJalen WilliamsChet Holmgren and Aaron Wiggins all found pockets and holes in Boston’s defense to pace the Thunder’s lead. In Oklahoma City, the Celtics’ defense saw the widest array of playmaking opponents in a Thunder effort that knocked Boston down in waves.

The Thunder’s pace also proved devastating, producing transition opportunities on 20.9% of their possessions this year to lead basketball while scoring 1.20 points per possession. Boston and Oklahoma tied 15-15 in fast break points, but it took the Celtics until Brown’s breakout free throws midway through the second to score on the run.

The Celtics turned up most of that heat in the final eight minutes, forcing four of the Thunder’s 12 turnovers on their run to within two late. Boston’s switching with Horford at the five flattened Oklahoma City, forcing three misses from three and a shot clock violation before Horford dunked and White hit a three on the run to begin what would’ve marked Boston’s most impressive comeback in recent memory. Porzingis returned for a mix of methodical sets, Brown attacking Cason Wallace and Tatum beating Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey’s help inside, while White and Tatum ran out for transition buckets.

The Celtics’ biggest miscues late came creeping too far away from Holmgren, who buried a pair of crucial threes to sustain the Thunder’s lead. Tatum kept the pressure on by grabbing two of his own misses for a powerful third-chance flush inside to stay within eight. He cut off a pass to Gilgeous-Alexander to draw Brown free throws, then Porzingis scored three points dunk through the Thunder’s zone look on the back line. Brown’s missed free throw on the ensuing possession nearly botched Boston’s comeback math down five, but after Shai bricked a three, White beat him to the corner to steal back that point with a corner three.

Ahead by two, Williams likely saved Oklahoma City with his leaning two in isolation over Tatum, but Porzingis answered with a post-up that started at the three point line, drawing a foul on Holmgren moments later at the rim. Down four after Giddey’s free throws the other way, Boston went fast to save its only timeout and Tatum hit Porzingis for his eighth assist and Porzingis’ 34th points. But his foot barely grazed the line and Gilgeous-Alexander sealed the game the other way.

Mazzulla blamed missed layups and defensive lapses for the loss while Gilgeous-Alexander avoided a sixth foul in the closing 4:21 like Steph Curry did several weeks ago with help defense. Pritchard provided energy that helped spark the comeback while Tatum again saw an opportunity to impact the game away from his scoring.

Regrettable stretches, especially the run to begin the fourth that made the comeback nearly impossible wrote the game story though, making a night filled with lessons one of only a few difficult losses to begin this season.

“I thought we played a good first half,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we played a bad third quarter and I thought we picked it back up in the fourth quarter. You can’t have a 40-point quarter against a team like that and they put pressure on you the entire game, so you have to have a high level of defensive activity, effort, connectivity and make multiple efforts for the entire game … I thought it was two great teams. The game went about how I thought it would go as far as it coming down to the last couple of possessions. It was a great game for us.”


Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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