The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Boston Celtics on the road, 134-129. In an impressive back-and-forth affair on Super Sunday, it was the Celtics who once again topped the Thunder by hanging on in the end. The Thunder have not beaten the Celtics since the 2016-17 season, and late game errors have been a consistent theme as OKC has struggled to solve Brad Stevens’ team.
The Thunder were led once again by Paul George, who finished with 37, but only shot 11-27 from the floor and 5-16 from three, though got to the free throw line 12 times. Russell Westbrook finished with another triple-double, recording 22 points, 16 assists, and 12 rebounds, but it was a costly turnover late that all but eliminated OKC’s chance to pull the upset after trailing nearly throughout.
To set the stage, the Thunder — trailing by 12 with under 5 minutes to play — closed the gap to 2 points with under 3 minutes to go. But they could not keep Kyrie Irving out of the lane, and found themselves trailing again by 6 with time running out. After a sideline out-of-bounds play where Westbrook found Jerami Grant open for a three to bring the team within one, they intentionally fouled Jayson Tatum. Tatum missed the 2nd free throw, and Westbrook controlled possession with 16 seconds remaining, down 2. Eschewing a timeout to set up a final play, this happened:
Naturally, Westbrook supporters and detractors reacted:
Russ in the last 3:30 of the game:— (@TheWestbrookEra) February 3, 2019
- Clutch 3
- Clutch Layup
- Clutch 2 FT’s
- Helps Ferg on defense and forces a turnover on Kyrie
- Clutch Assist to a Grant 3PT
- Makes another clutch FT
But the TL is only going to talk about his turnover.
Lol. Funny thing about that Westbrook turnover. Is that people will find a way to be okay with it. Terrible man, just terrible. #ThunderUp— ChrisNotChristopher (@crednose08) February 3, 2019
The bang-bang play was as much a Westbrook Rorschach test as any.
In addition, Billy Donovan critics will argue he should have taken a timeout with 16 seconds to go; after all, the Thunder had just dialed up a beautiful play to get Grant that wide open three. But also there’s the reality that OKC was crushing the Celtics on the fast break, 37-15, and without any shot blockers at the rim, forcing the issue and not letting the Celtics and Stevens get locked in for a final defensive set is a reasonable approach.
But here’s what I saw:
The Celtics alertly went to stop the ball at the point of attack, but then Kyrie took a HUUUGE gamble by ignoring his man and going for the double-team and steal. If he doesn’t get the turnover, Dennis Schroder, who is likely Westbrook’s target, has either a layup or a wide-open corner-3 to possibly win it. Irving took the gamble and it paid off, sealing the win. If he didn’t get it, he’s the scapegoat after playing a near-perfect game.
In an alternate reality, if that were Westbrook instead of Kyrie going for the steal instead of defending his man, we all know how that reaction would have gone as well. Furthermore, it was only a week ago where Kyrie himself committed two costly turnovers against the Warriors late in the 4th that ended Boston’s bid to upset the champs. This is how it goes for the best of the best, but narratives are tough to undo.
Unfortunately the play will overshadow what was mostly a fantastic game played by both teams. The rhythm of the game felt largely similar to OKC’s win over Milwaukee last week, where the Thunder were the better team for most of the game, but a late game push by the Bucks brought the outcome in doubt. Today, the Celtics were a little bit better most of the time — Paul George and Dennis Schroder’s shots were a little off, the Celtics got 14 points in only 17 minutes from Daniel Theis, and once again OKC’s base pick and roll defense wasn’t quite sure what to do most of the time. And despite all that, they had a shot to win it in the end.
To be sure, there are things OKC could have done better that could have taken them over the top. But today, the outcome was largely because even though both teams played well, Boston was slightly better, and sometimes we have to live with that.
The Thunder vie to start their next winning streak soon as they head into All-Star break.