|Ray Allen grabs a rebound in front of Thunder high scorer Kevin Durant (17 points). (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)|
OKLAHOMA CITY - The Celtics expected rough treatment on the road this season. They did not expect to have many cakewalks. And they got both on their first trip since winning the NBA championship last spring.
There will not be much easier opposition this season than the Oklahoma City Thunder, a 96-83 victim last night as the Celtics improved to 4-1. The Celtics began this trip with a 95-79 loss at Indiana, then overcame a physical challenge from the Houston Rockets in a 103-99 win.
The Celtics displayed flashes of the form that got them off to an 8-0 start last season in threatening to turn the win over the Rockets into a blowout, then easily blew out the Thunder 24 hours later.
The Celtics, who host Milwaukee tomorrow, took the lead early in the second half and maintained control, holding Oklahoma City to 26 points combined in the second and third quarters through a combination of stifling defense and the Thunder's lack of offensive direction.
Paul Pierce (20 points) converted a layup for an 84-70 lead with 3:20 to go, and that proved to be the deciding score. But the game was wrapped up long before that, allowing Kevin Garnett (17 points) to take long breathers (he played 29 minutes).
"That was intentional," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Garnett's limited time. "I didn't want to give any of them a lot of minutes - eight games in 12 days - we're going to save fuel if I can. But this team [the Thunder] just plays so darn hard they don't allow you to do that, so we had to expend minutes for Paul and Ray [Allen]."
Rivers went to the reserves in the second quarter, a combo of Tony Allen, Glen Davis, Eddie House, Leon Powe, and Pierce rallying the Celtics from a 29-21 deficit. Powe scored all 11 of his points in the quarter.
"What we're trying to do with the second unit, we're trying to establish Leon as the post guy in that group," Rivers said. "Because in the past we go jump shot happy when the second group is in, especially unless Paul is on the floor. I really thought that was a good mix - it's just dangerous."
A 4-point possession, capped by Chris Wilcox's dunk off a missed foul shot with 17 seconds to play in the first quarter, gave Oklahoma City a 29-21 lead. After that score, though, the Thunder converted only once from the field over the next 9:44.
Pierce's 3-pointer with :02 on the shot clock ignited a 19-4 run over a 5:59 span. Powe's follow provided a 40-33 lead 5:58 into the quarter, the Celtic starters returning for the final minutes of the half. Kendrick Perkins's lane shot extended the lead to 46-36 with 2:54 left. Joe Smith broke a 6:03 Thunder drought from the field 21 seconds later.
"We had the penalty with 6 1/2 minutes left and we took five straight jump shots," Rivers said. "That's the little things we've got to get better at."
At the start of the second half, the Celtics created offense with coherent ball movement, plus some exceptional individual moves - a Rajon Rondo fake-behind-the-back-pass layup and a dizzying Allen dribble that concluded with an 18-footer, just before the shot clock was to expire - to extend their advantage to 64-53 with 4:14 left in the quarter. Pierce then exchanged passes with Rondo for a 3-point play to conclude a fast break and Allen converted a 3-pointer for a 70-53 edge with 2:56 to go in the third.
Perkins symbolized the Celtics' dominance during a 54-second possession, capped by Perkins's low-post move for an 81-66 lead with 4:37 to go.
"We were worried about this game after having a tough game [Tuesday] night," Rivers said. "The whole key for us is if we can make a team play against our half-court defense, we can do pretty well. But if we don't get back and we gamble for offensive rebounds, they can score because we are breaking our rules. Everything was a setup, they had to walk it up. We want to run, we don't want them to run, and I thought we did a better job of it."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.