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Out of it from the very start

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 20, 2010

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We were fooled into thinking the Celtics were past the point of arrogance or looking past their opponents or depending on the green and the clover to get victories.

They aren’t. And last night’s 89-84 loss to the very shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder may have been the best thing to happen to the Celtics in this brief season.

A generation ago, Muhammad Ali was doing so much jawing with underrated Ken Norton he got caught with a left hook with his mouth open and fought the last nine rounds with a broken jaw. He lost that fight in San Diego. That night in 1973, Ali promised himself he would never underestimate an opponent.

The Celtics have struggled with delusions of grandeur for two years, but after disposing of such opponents as the Knicks, Pistons, Bucks, and Wizards, they were convinced their issues with toying with lesser opponents were in the past.

Without Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, the Thunder showed the guile of a veteran team and played with more passion. They wanted to win this game more than the Celtics, who easily pasted the Thunder 13 days ago in Oklahoma City.

What the Celtics didn’t take into account is that the Thunder took that home loss to heart, embarrassed by Boston’s precision and angered by its bravado, especially one Russell Westbrook, who took his brewing rivalry with Rajon Rondo seriously.

The Celtics fully realized Westbrook would transform from distributor to scorer with Durant’s absence, and they were too lazy to do anything about it. They made no defensive adjustments, and by the time they did, the rest of the Thunder players had confidence. James Harden was swishing midrange shots, Eric Maynor was stroking jumpers with little hesitation. Even little-used D.J. White came off the bench for 12 effective minutes.

The Thunder were active and vigorous. The Celtics were passive. Westbrook and Harden combined for 21 free throw attempts. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce totaled three.

Hall of Fame talent will get you into nightclubs, but it won’t necessarily get you victories, and the Celtics were burned by their conceit.

“You definitely get resuscitated,’’ Allen said. “Humility is a big part of everybody’s life and it’s a big part of being successful. No matter how you look at it, you make it to the mountain top but there’s always somebody ready to knock you down a peg. Today that happened to us. We have to remember, winning you never really celebrate because around the corner is a loss waiting to happen.’’

It’s happening around the league. Phoenix hit 22 3-pointers and beat the Lakers in Los Angeles. Paul Millsap scored 46 points as Utah won at Miami. Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan combined for 53 points as porous Toronto won at Orlando.

Letdowns happen to the best teams, but what makes teams truly great is how they respond to such setbacks. The Celtics have a difficult two-game trip beginning tomorrow in Toronto. Those Sunday afternoon games in Canada are always difficult after a night out in Toronto. The Celtics then head to Atlanta Monday to face a Hawks team that beat them all four times last season.

The Celtics have proven they are one of the top two teams in the NBA when they play well. But what they need to continue to prove to themselves is that they are capable of consistently taking out a lesser opponent without undue drama.

Last night was dramatic, and the Celtics’ lack of urgency created that environment.

They truly expected the Thunder to lie down, but Westbrook is a potential All-Star, Harden is a lottery pick, and Serge Ibaka is fearless. The Thunder are no longer an upstart team, even without their best player, and they embarrassed the uninterested Celtics.

Doc Rivers has been angrier following games. Last night he was resigned to the fact that regardless of how much he tried to motivate his team, the veterans set the tone by appearing relieved when they learned Durant would miss the game with a sprained left ankle. Last April, he was critical to Oklahoma City’s victory here.

With Durant sitting in the visiting locker room, the Celtics circled the ring, looked at their hobbled opponent, and approached with a fraudulent swagger. And they paid the price for their underestimation.

“It’s kind of hard in this league to get up for certain people,’’ Shaquille O’Neal said. “Tonight we disrespected the basketball gods. We also have to realize every team that plays us is going to be playing way above their heads. One dude [Royal Ivey] hit a three off the glass. If we do what we’re supposed to do, we wouldn’t even be in that situation.’’

So the Celtics got caught sleeping. But what happens now? Do they follow their 2009-10 trend of trading blows with inferior opponents, or do they begin each game focused and determined, unwilling to live off reputation? If they are truly champions, the answer is the latter.

“I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn,’’ Rivers said. “They really deserved to win the game, quite honestly. If we’d have won the game I would’ve been happy with the win, but known that we didn’t deserve to win. So we didn’t.’’

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

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