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Thunder 97, Celtics 88

Skid hits five

Celtics’ comeback fizzles in loss to Oklahoma City

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 17, 2012
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Whether it was the slew of turnovers, the defensive lapses that allowed Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook to attempt uncontested 3-pointers or the inability to get easy baskets - a staple of their dominant years - there is overriding evidence the Celtics are no longer an elite team.

The question with approximately 82 percent of the regular season still remaining is whether the Celtics, with their aging legs, erratic bench and lack of a true post presence, can work feverishly enough to return to that level by season’s end.

There was progress made again last night at TD Garden against the championship-contending Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Celtics melted in the final five minutes and allowed the Thunder to launch a long-range barrage and coast to a 97-88 win.

Former Celtic Kendrick Perkins returned to TD Garden for the first time since his controversial trade to the Thunder in February and scored 7 points with 5 rebounds in 28 minutes.

Meanwhile, his former team dropped its fifth straight game - the longest losing streak of the Big Three era - and are desperately searching for consistency.

The Celtics committed 11 second-half turnovers, accounting for more than one-third of Oklahoma City’s points. And each of their fourth-quarter turnovers resulted in a Thunder basket, as the Celtics continue to pay dearly for each miscue.

“Boy I thought we did a lot of good things, again, and it’s frustrating,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Our turnovers are killing us. We’re just trying to will the team, do too much. It’s not like anybody is trying to be selfish. The way you win is with execution.’’

The Thunder countered the Celtics’ valiant rally with a barrage of clutch 3-pointers, two by Westbrook, whose final long-range shot with 51.1 seconds left gave Oklahoma City a 7-point lead. It was the Thunder’s third straight win at TD Garden.

Oklahoma City scored 12 points on 3-pointers during a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter and the Celtics had no answer.

At this point, they are just trying to compile enough good plays and consistent efforts to eke out one victory. The Celtics haven’t won since Jan. 4, against the New Jersey Nets.

“None of us like to lose, that’s the frustrating part. From every win you can take some positives and from losses you can take some positives,’’ said Paul Pierce, whose re-emergence continued with 24 points in 39 minutes. “I think I like where we are headed, there are just little things that are really killing us; the turnovers, obviously, if we can just clean that up, if we can keep teams out of transition and control that a little bit better we’ll be great. But you have to go out there and do it.’’

In a disturbing pattern, the Celtics are working arduously defensively and allowing bad turnovers and mental mistakes to lead to opponents’ points. They committed seven turnovers in the third quarter and were outscored, 15-5, after tying the score at 57 on a Jermaine O’Neal layup with five minutes left in the quarter as the Thunder took a 72-62 lead heading into the fourth.

The Celtics did not lead for the final 41:40 and they trailed by double digits in the first half for the fifth consecutive game. As much progress as the Celtics are making against elite teams, they are wasting chances to win with silly mistakes. In one key sequence, the Celtics had a chance to tie or take the lead. Trailing, 78-76, with five minutes left, Rajon Rondo simply lost his dribble to James Harden and Kevin Durant followed with a crushing 3-pointer.

Durant finished with 28 points and Westbrook added 26. But Sefolosha was an unlikely factor with 19 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals.

“We’re having these couple of minute intervals where we’re mishandling the ball, I know myself I had [five] turnovers, I have to be better,’’ said Kevin Garnett, who shot 5 of 19 and had 12 points. “But we were in the fight. The threes hurt us. Winning is tough. We’re dealing with a talented team. There’s nothing easy about this.’’

The Celtics made sure to introduce Perkins last of the Thunder’s starting five and he received a raucous standing ovation. Perkins said the moment would be emotional and if that wasn’t enough, the Celtics followed with a video montage of his greatest Celtic moments after the first timeout.

Perkins raised both arms high to the crowd in acknowledgement.

“Yeah, man, that was unbelievable,’’ he said. “You know I really appreciate it. I say this time and time again, I really appreciate the whole city of Boston, the whole Celtics organization, just the way that they embrace me time and time again. Out of high school to who I develop as a player now, I just want to let them know I really appreciate it. They didn’t have to do it. It ain’t like they just put some nonsense together. I’m not taking it for granted. I want to let people know I greatly appreciate it.’’

And it was definitely old times when Rondo darted into the lane with a drive and Perkins introduced himself with a left forearm near Rondo’s neck that resulted in an early foul. Perkins picked up three fouls in 13 first-half minutes but finished with four.

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