OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's not always going to look pretty.
Kyrie Irving has probably repeated that phrase, or something similar, in just about every media session this season. It's an acknowledgement that the Boston Celtics, especially in the aftermath of Gordon Hayward's season-ending ankle injury, are very much a work in progress. And Irving knows there are going to be bumps in the road.
Maybe it's appropriate that much of downtown Oklahoma City is under construction, because the Celtics steered into just about every crater possible over the first 24 minutes of Friday's game against the Thunder. Irving missed eight of the nine shots he took before halftime and didn't score until Boston was down 18 with two minutes remaining in the second quarter. By the time Irving retreated to the locker room for intermission, he said he was pondering whether to toss a water cooler in frustration.
Then he reminded himself: It's not always going to look pretty.
Boston coach Brad Stevens worked some of his typical sorcery, electing to start a minutes-restricted Marcus Morris in the second half, despite the fact that he was making his 2017-18 season debut after battling knee soreness at the start of the year. The switch helped Boston better match up with the small-ball Thunder, and the Celtics cranked up their defensive intensity in the process.
After Boston chipped away at Oklahoma City's lead, both Irving and Al Horford caught fire in the fourth quarter. They paired up to connect on 10 of 12 shots attempts. Horford was a perfect 5-for-5 with three clutch 3-pointers, and Boston surged ahead for a 101-94 triumph at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
"Understanding what we were battling, the type of first half we put out there, it was ugly. Man, it was just ugly," said Irving, who registered 22 of his team-high 25 points in the second half.
Irving scored or assisted on 37 of Boston's 64 second-half points after accounting for only 3 points in the first half, according to ESPN Stats and Information data. He was 9 of 13 shooting for 22 points after intermission, adding six assists while finishing plus-27 in plus/minus in the second half. He had a handful of fearless drives with crafty finishes at the basket.
"It was an ugly first half. It wasn't the prettiest for us. And we understand that," Irving said. "We don't want to get in the habit of that, kind of getting down by 18, understanding that against a good team like that, it could turn into 30 in a matter of an instant. So we battled. We took away some things that they were feeling comfortable with in the first half and picked up our pace and our defensive pressure. And then things started going our way, and then we just kept battling to the end."
For such a young team, the Celtics have shown a remarkable resiliency early in the season. Boston started 0-2 while in a fog after Hayward's gruesome injury just five minutes into the season opener in Cleveland. Since then, the Celtics have won seven straight games -- an NBA record for a team that lost its first two games of the season -- and own the best record in all of basketball.
In much the same way that Stevens implored his team to simply keep its focus on the next play in the aftermath of Hayward's injury, there was no rah-rah halftime speech on Friday night. Stevens simply requested that his team to do what it has done throughout this recent winning streak.
"I think that we just all challenged each other to just come out and play hard, to be better. And we did that," Horford said. "We could have easily kind of folded, but it shows character. Our guys came out and kept fighting. We didn't make excuses. You know, I'm just proud of the group. We responded the right way."
Contrasted against the way he struggled in the first half, Irving was exceptional in sparking Boston's comeback. He hit a couple of jumpers early in the second half to get himself going, then he was relentless in attacking the basket. There was a series of tough left-handed finishes in traffic. And with Boston clinging to a 1-point lead with 4:15 to play, Irving came off a Horford screen, got bumped by Russell Westbrook going up and connected on a 3-pointer. He missed the free throw but got his own rebound and muscled in the putback over Westbrook.
It was Irving's sixth straight game with 20 points or more. For a while, it looked like this might be one of his first duds -- on the same night that former running mate LeBron James tied Irving's Cavaliers team record with 57 points to help the stumbling Cavs to a big win over the Washington Wizards. Instead, Irving produced maybe his most memorable series of plays in a Celtics uniform.
"End of the game, that's winning time," Irving said. "So Coach puts the trust in me and Al to go down the stretch."
Horford continues his evolution into a legitimate 3-point threat. He's essentially shooting 50 percent from beyond the 3-point arc since the end of the 2016-17 season, through the playoffs and into the new season.
On this night, Horford was 8 of 10 shooting overall, and he made all four of his 3-pointers. Three of those treys came in the final frame, and he never hesitated with clean looks as the Thunder did everything to corral Irving.
"It looks good every time it leaves his hand," Stevens said of Horford's 3-pointers. "He's made himself into one heck of a shooter. He kinda stayed ahead of the curve with where the game was going. All the credit goes to him for that."
Stevens is still concerned about Boston's first-half struggles, as the Thunder completely flummoxed the Celtics for the first 24 minutes. But Boston got a nice look at the way Morris can help out during the second half, and this was by far the team's best win after feasting on a rather agreeable schedule over the past two weeks.
Sure, it wasn't always pretty, but it's the best-looking win among the bunch.
"It was a big, big win for us, especially early, to come in here," Morris said. "They've got a great team, three guys that are gonna be All-Stars. So to get this win in here, I think that was a statement game for us, being down in the first half, coming back and finishing strong and winning.
"I think that was a great statement around the league for us."