OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's entirely cliché to label a game "a tale of two halves," but in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 101-94 loss on Friday to the Boston Celtics, as both Billy Donovan and Carmelo Anthony said, there's not much of a better way to describe it.
First half: Thunder 55, Celtics 37. Second half: Celtics 64, Thunder 39.
"Who we can be was out in front of us the first 24 minutes," Donovan said. "And what we can be on the other end of it, the second 24 minutes."
The first half was a whirling display of the Thunder's raw power and potential, with a suffocating defense clamping down on Kyrie Irving, forcing the Celtics' star into a woeful 1-of-9 shooting performance, with his first bucket not coming until only two minutes remained in the second quarter. It looked as if this was a team putting it all together, building on a dominant performance in Milwaukee a few nights before, and showing evidence of what it can be.
The second half was a series of breakdowns mixed with poor shooting, leaving the Celtics to make their way back from 18 down to out-execute the Thunder in crunch time. It was disjointed, it was ugly. And while it was all kinds of disappointing, the Thunder didn't react much to it in the locker room afterward.
"It's good to struggle now, this is our first year together," Paul George said. "This is a long run, a long run, we'll be fine. We're starting to shoot it well, we're starting to find some rhythm, we're starting to figure out how to attack and be aggressive. It was just a rough night, like Melo. Melo makes some of the shots he's been making all season long, we'll be totally fine."
It was a difficult night for Anthony, who while putting up a double-double (10 points, 14 rebounds), shot just 3-of-17 from the field, including 1-of-12 in the second half. Per ESPN Stats & Information, that's the worst shooting half of his career when taking more than 10 shots. Russell Westbrook didn't really have it either, going 7-of-20 for 19 points, 6 rebounds and 11 assists (plus 6 turnovers). George was solid, but struggled at various times, finishing with 25 points on 9-of-20 shooting.
"That's who we are, that first 24 minutes," Anthony said. "That first half is who we are, that's what we established ourselves to be. In the second half, coming out in that third quarter, it was just too many mental lapses. That's not who we are. We know what type of team we are, and that first half we showed that."
Pinpointing the issue(s) didn't come easy for coaches and players after the game, with Westbrook saying energy, Anthony pointing to mental lapses, and George talking about momentum. Donovan mentioned "mental stamina," suggesting the team might have relaxed some from the charged-up, locked-in focus the team had in the opening half. Whatever the reason, the Thunder failed in a variety of ways as the Celtics cinched up the paint, perimeter shots stopped falling and Irving shook loose.
As one team staffer said before the game in Milwaukee, it might not be until Christmas that the Thunder really sort out their identity. That feels like a long time, but Westbrook is adapting -- quite well, mostly -- while Anthony and George are finding their way alongside the reigning MVP. They want to be an elite defensive team, letting that end of the floor carry the day while they figure out the offensive side. That formula, for at least the first 24 minutes, was on full display. Once the defense slipped, so did everything else.
"Focus on both [the good and bad]," Westbrook said. "You see how you can improve, even in the first half and obviously in the second half, you can see how you can be better on both sides."
It feels this will be the narrative, at least for a while, as this Thunder team plays through the opening 30 games or so. When they win, it'll be about how it's coming together and they're figuring it out. When they lose, it'll be about patience and giving it time to gel. It just turned November, so that's OK for now.
They've played eight games together; some good, some not as a good. They've lost three very close games, and dominated in their four wins. They're back on the road for three games -- at Portland, Sacramento and Denver -- and at some point, they need to start stringing together performances and looking bigger picture. That time hasn't come yet.
"One day at a time," Westbrook said. "That's it."