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Thunder 89, Celtics 84

Rolled by Thunder

Celtics’ focus clouded without Durant around

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 20, 2010

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Doc Rivers heard the word going around in the locker room.

“Oh, jeez, he’s not playing.’’

He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Kevin Durant wasn’t going to be on the floor for the Thunder last night because of a sprained left ankle, and maybe, just maybe, after beating the Wizards without their star, the Celtics were penciling in another win because Durant was going to be on the bench.

It made perfect sense.

Not even two weeks ago, the Celtics went to Oklahoma City, absorbed a 34-point Durant scoring spree, and picked up the first of three wins on a four-game trip. Without him, Oklahoma City could essentially scratch a solid 30 points from their lineup.

It ended up as one of those cases where the land mines were disguised as welcome signs.

The Celtics assumed that with Durant out, Russell Westbrook would try to shoulder the load, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Orchestrating the offense and drilling shots that kept the Celtics at bay and hushed TD Garden, Westbrook scored 31 points, had 6 assists, and grabbed 4 rebounds in Oklahoma City’s 89-84 win.

The Thunder blew up the Celtics’ five-game home winning streak and temporarily checked their egos.

“Veteran teams should know better and we didn’t,’’ Rivers said. “You could see it. On both ends, there was no urgency the entire night.’’

What the Celtics assumed they’d get was a listless team missing its key component. Instead, they got a feisty one trying to win without him.

“You know what I think: We just didn’t start the game with the right mind-set,’’ Paul Pierce said. “We knew what they were going to do. When you have Durant sitting out, along with Jeff Green, Westbrook is going to bring his ‘A’ game, and the rest of these guys feel like there is an opportunity for them to step up. They stepped up tonight.

“Unfortunately, our defense didn’t kick in, a little bit too late. You’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. I think we kind of eased into the game. And then once when we got into the game, we’re down trying to claw our way back in. That’s what happens when you got a team who’s desperate without two of their best players. You give the other guys confidence, and you can get surprised any given day in the NBA.’’

The pace was slow, and it seemed like every shot fell. The Celtics shot 55.3 percent in the first half; the Thunder shot 57.1 percent.

The defense arrived fashionably late (the teams combined to go 4 of 30 in the fourth quarter), and by then the Thunder had all the momentum.

“I asked them to explain to me how you could hold them to 12 points for the fourth quarter, but for the first three you couldn’t guard them and then all of a sudden you have a sense of urgency and then defensively we were terrific,’’ Rivers said. “Now you’re pressing, missing free throws, missing wide-open shots.’’

It was one of those games where Rivers started looking to the basketball gods, sensing that maybe the Celtics had skipped tithes at some point. It couldn’t have been more clear when Royal Ivey salvaged a busted play in the third quarter by banking in a 3-pointer from 25 feet.

“That’s the basketball gods talking to you,’’ said Pierce. “It’s going to happen in this league.’’

For all his scoring, Westbrook ran cold in the fourth quarter, missing his all seven of his attempts from the floor. But when he went to the line with 13.4 seconds left, he drained both free throws, putting the Thunder up, 87-84.

James Harden (12 points, six rebounds) went to the line with 3.9 seconds lift and hit two more to seal it.

Realizing he was picking them apart, the Celtics did everything they could to rattle Westbrook.

With 9:41 left in the third, Shaquille O’Neal clotheslined Westbrook, obviously trying to send a message. Westbrook ignored it, dusted himself off, then knocked down two free throws that made it 56-49.

With 4:30 left in the fourth, O’Neal cross-checked Westbrook into the baseline, earning himself a flagrant foul. Westbrook (11 for 13 from the line) knocked down the two free throws and put the Thunder up, 85-79.

The Celtics were bracing themselves for Westbrook to take 25 to 30 shots. He went 9 for 21, but never stopped firing.

“That was the worst-kept secret in the world,’’ Rivers said. “Your best player goes out, your second-best player, that’s a lot more shots for him. So that was no surprise to anybody. He shot 9 for 21, but in my opinion the first three quarters he was the reason they won the game.

“He was dominating us, making shots. I thought our defense was porous, and if you’re not going to play defense correctly on him and he gets going . . . it’s like that set him free and then we helped.’’

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