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The Celtics didn't always have the answer to slowing Russell Westbrook and the Thunder.The Boston Celtics limped into the All-Star break Wednesday night on the heels of a 119-104 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Boston is physically battered from mounting injuries and mentally bruised in the midst of a five-game losing streak, the longest of the Big Three era.
But here's the biggest takeaway from Wednesday's defeat: An inspired second half against Oklahoma City gave Boston reason to be inspired about the second half of the season.
"I just love the spirit of this team," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters after his charges rallied from a 27-point deficit to (improbably) make it a two-possession game with little more than three minutes to go. "I told them after the game, 'If we play like [the Celtics did in the second half of the game] in the second half of the season -- and healthy -- it’s going to be tough to beat us.'"
If you turned your TV off at halftime -- and, really, who could blame you? -- you missed the latest gritty comeback effort by Boston. Yes, the same team that rallied from a 27-point hole to stun Orlando nearly did it again. The Celtics (15-17) ultimately came up short, but considering how bleak things looked in the first half, it was enough to give Boston something to hang its hat on going into the midseason break.
After all, watching the Thunder rally from their own early double-digit deficit to open a 23-point halftime cushion had most fence-straddlers ready to hop on the side of Team BlowItUp. Oklahoma City's 72-point first-half outburst left even the most ardent of Celtics fans ready to admit that this team might simply be too old to run with the young guns of the league.
Apropos of this roller-coaster season, the Celtics made things far more interesting than they should have been in the second half, putting a legit scare into the Thunder, who finally pulled away over the final three minutes. Boston did more than prevent widespread panic with its rally -- it gave itself a healthy dose of optimism that it can be a more consistent team -- the type that can hang with the league's best -- when it gets healthy.
But therein lies the biggest question of the second half: Can the Celtics actually get -- and stay -- healthy?
That's no small task considering Jermaine O'Neal (sprained right wrist) and Chris Wilcox (right adductor strain) were headed back to Boston for further evaluation, all while Celtics coach Doc Rivers suggested the team might be in the market for another big man if either of those injuries proves to be a long-term concern.
Even if Boston gets bodies back, there's no guarantee that anybody on this aging team will be able to stay healthy. Celtics players have already combined to miss a whopping 58 games due to injuries this season through 32 games -- an average of 3.9 games per player on the 15-man roster.
The Celtics desperately need upright bodies (and the return of All-Star-bound Rajon Rondo from a two-game suspension will aid that cause as well). That lack of depth showed not only in Oklahoma City's big first-half run (when Ray Allen was forced to lead a group of young players with Paul Pierce battling early foul trouble), but in Boston's limited bench output overall. Rookie JaJuan Johnson accounted for six of the nine points that Boston's bench chipped in; This as Oklahoma City's bench featured three players with at least six points or more, including James Harden and his 17 points (to go along with seven assists, four rebounds, and two steals over 34:21).
The Celtics were never truly healthy during the first half of the season. They might never be. But this team knows it's capable of achieving more than it showed in the first half of the year.
“I like the way we played in the second half [on Wednesday]," captain Paul Pierce told reporters. "We could have let down and packed it in, knowing that the All-Star break was here after the game. But we didn’t. If we would have withstood that run in the first quarter, I think we could have had a chance to win. I hurt us by getting into foul trouble early, but overall I saw positive things from this game.”
Now it's on Boston to build off of them. We've heard plenty of this type of chatter during the first half of the year, about the potential to turn things around down the road. The All-Star break's arrival reminds us there's only two months left in the regular season and just three weeks until the trade deadline. If Boston comes out of the break close to full health, the first few games could be the gauge to determine if this team truly can be a contender in the postseason.
Three more quick hits from Wednesday's game:
CENTURY STREAK SNAPPED: Before Wednesday's loss, the Celtics hadn't allowed an opponent to reach triple digits since the second game of the season in Miami. That stretch of 29 games was the fourth-longest single-season streak of its kind for any NBA team since the inception of the 24-second clock, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The longest single-season streaks over that span (since the 1954-55 season) were by the 2003-04 Pistons (two separate streaks of 36 and 30 games) and the 2000-01 Knicks (33).
KG EXTENDED IN RETURN: Forward Kevin Garnett, who missed Boston's previous two games due to a personal matter, returned to chip in 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting with 13 rebounds and two blocked shots over 37:39. Despite showing some lingering effects from a hip flexor injury that sidelined him for a game last week, Garnett grinded through Wednesday. "I thought he was very uplifting," Rivers told reporters. "Kevin has a hip flexor, which you can’t get injured by playing on, but it hurts like heck to play with. He just gutted it out and he knew we only had three bigs out there. He was terrific to watch and compete. If we play like that, most nights with a full team, I think we are going to be great.”
THE USUAL SUSPECTS: There's been plenty of common threads in Boston's losses during this five-game slide. Familiar culprits were at the heart of Wednesday's loss, too, as the Celtics committed 18 turnovers, which Oklahoma City turned into 24 points. Ten of those turnovers (and 16 of those points) came in the first half, all while the Thunder committed a mere two first-half giveaways that led to no points. The Thunder also registered 14 more field goal attempts than Boston overall, the byproduct of 10 offensive rebounds (that were cashed into 14 second-chance points). Serge Ibaka had three offensive rebounds alone in the first quarter.