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Reaching out — for some answers

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 1, 2010

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This 59.5 percent shooting doesn’t matter if you don’t play any defense.

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, the Celtics played good defense in spurts, stretches, occasionally, and every now and then. But they were lazy against Kevin Durant, who finished with 37 points and two fewer free throw attempts (15) than the entire Celtics team.

That was reflected in Boston’s reaching in for strips, a no-no in the NBA. Regardless if a player gets all ball and the play sounds clean, officials are generally going to call a foul when the defender swats down on the ball during an All-Star’s shot attempt. The Celtics thought they had at least four strips on Durant and they all resulted in free throws.

Instead of good team defense, switching, jumping out on screens, and using their bodies and not their hands, the Celtics decided to reach their way to victory and it didn’t work. They were so focused late in the game on Durant that twice in 78 seconds they allowed Jeff Green to drain 3-pointers that made the difference.

That wasn’t a sin. Durant didn’t win the game with his scoring in the late going. Green is a 33 percent 3-point shooter who got hot in the crucial minutes and executed the Thunder’s game plan. Those shots were a matter of Oklahoma City making plays, something that shouldn’t anger the Celtics.

What should annoy them is how they were outplayed at their own game in the second half. Durant scored 20 points after halftime, Paul Pierce recorded one free throw. The Thunder grabbed 24 rebounds and turned those into 10 second-chance points, the Celtics collected 16 rebounds and just two from the bench after the break.

The Celtics got wooed into a scoring contest with the Thunder. Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace tallied 28 points (good news). They also combined for three rebounds in 45 minutes (bad news).

Boston isn’t good enough to beat teams at the opponent’s style. Those days are gone. The Celtics have to impose their will on teams, win with defense, aggressive offense, and solid outside shooting. The Celtics are 22 for 98 from the 3-point line in their past six games, so there needs to be an adjustment when they are misfiring from beyond the arc.

The Celtics need to be more selective with their shots, more careful with the ball. On this night, the veteran team made more rookie mistakes than the young bunch. The 59.5 (60 if you are the optimistic Rivers, 59 if you are a member of the pessimistic Boston media, according to Rivers) percentage is deceiving because the Green did not execute in all facets.

The fact that Durant attempted so many free throws angered the Celtics but that wasn’t the difference. Oklahoma City is 9-5 in games in which Durant attempts at least 15 free throws, so other teams have found a way to win even with the third-year superstar living at the line.

While some Celtics complained, Kendrick Perkins, the team’s conscience, calmly voiced the truth.

“I thought we played bad on the defensive end tonight,’’ Perkins said. “Guys missed assignments. We were supposed to be there. Those missed assignments add up and we lost.’’

When it was pointed out that the Celtics shot 59.5 percent, Perkins said, “We didn’t play no defense, though. They got to the line whenever. We just fouled. We were late on rotations. They were being aggressive. Durant is a crafty player. He’s a scorer in this league. There’s a reason he’s averaging almost 30. He gets to the line. He did what we had to do and everybody else fed off of him.

“We weren’t talking on the floor, just worrying about scoring more than the defensive end.’’

That’s why the Celtics were ahead by just 4 points despite shooting 71 percent in the first half. That’s pretty hard to do. But the Celtics fouled Oklahoma City not on rebounds, but on jump shots, leading to free throws.

Only nine other teams allow opponents to shoot more free throws than the Celtics, and when playoff time comes, games are called more tightly contested, especially in the fourth quarter. So the Celtics need to make some defensive changes, stop using their hands, and use their feet. The must make harder fouls to prevent 3-point plays and refrain from raking during critical junctures of the fourth quarter because that’s when even the slightest fouls are called.

Rivers and the players can gripe about the officiating, but Oklahoma City was the more aggressive team and executed better down the stretch.

The Celtics played well offensively over the first three quarters, but when it counted they couldn’t match the Thunder basket-for-basket, and when that happens, defense has to be the solution.

Shoring up the D is yet another thing on the to-do list before the playoffs.

“They made more adjustments in the fourth quarter and we weren’t hitting any shots,’’ Davis said. “I think some of our defensive coverage broke down. They ran some good plays at the end.

“We’ve got to fight. This team is a veteran team, an experienced team, and we’re going to bounce back. We’ll have the last laugh.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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