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Thunder 119, Celtics 104

Celtics only half-bad

Potential blowout turns into respectable loss

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 23, 2012
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OKLAHOMA CITY - There has to be some momentum and positive feelings generated from the second half of the Celtics’ 119-104 loss to the Thunder last night because it was such a significant and encouraging improvement from the first half.

The Celtics looked uninterested and overwhelmed in the first 24 minutes, allowing a 30-3 run by the Thunder en route to their 72-point first half. In the second half, the Celtics stopped complaining to officials, executed defensively, and sliced a 27-point deficit to 6 before losing at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

It was Boston’s fifth straight loss as the Celtics once again faced a championship-caliber team without three major contributors. But they enter the All-Star break knowing that Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass will return Tuesday against the Cavaliers.

Last night the Celtics averted what could have been one of their more embarrassing defeats in recent memory and drew to within 108-102 after a Paul Pierce free throw with 3:31 left.

After being thumped Monday in Dallas without Rondo (suspension) and Kevin Garnett, and with Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal leaving the game with injuries, the Celtics gathered themselves after the first-half debacle and outplayed the Thunder in the final 24 minutes.

“Every once in a while you lose a game and you have a team-building game. Tonight was a team-building game for us,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m rarely happy, I’m still not. We lost the game. There’s still no moral victories but that was absolutely a team-builder in our locker room and that was terrific.’’

Pierce scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half and Garnett returned from a two-game absence for a personal family issue with 23 points and 13 rebounds in 38 minutes. Russell Westbrook continued his stellar play against the Celtics with 31 points but counterpart Avery Bradley made him work, and contributed 12 points, 5 assists, and 3 blocked shots.

The Celtics used the second half as a reset, adjusting defensively to the Thunder, especially Kevin Durant, who scored 16 points in the first half. In the second, he was 4-for-13 shooting with three turnovers as the Celtics contested every drive with two defenders.

Westbrook repeatedly beat the Celtics’ point guards off the dribble and was able to free himself for open jumpers. The Thunder are the league’s third-ranked scoring defense but the Celtics offered more resistance and a better effort after halftime.

“We like what we did, we gave a great effort,’’ guard Ray Allen said. “We proved offensively that if we play the right way, we can score. We scored 100-plus points tonight and we have guys that can score on this roster.’’

The Celtics methodically reduced the lead in the third quarter and eventually found a defensive scheme that frustrated the Thunder. After trailing, 90-64, following a Westbrook 3-point play, they ended the quarter on a 16-4 run.

Allen then scored 7 points of an 11-2 run that cut the deficit to 108-102.

“I like the way we did play in the second half,’’ Pierce said. “We could have looked at the score, and the All-Star break is starting, and really packed it in. If we would have withstood that one run in the first quarter . . . I kind of hurt us by getting in foul trouble. That really put us in a difficult situation. But outside of that, we saw some positive things. Guys wouldn’t give up.’’

The Celtics trailed, 72-49, at the half after leading, 22-12, in the first quarter.

But the Thunder tallied 23 of the next 26 points for a 35-25 lead by the time the quarter ended, a 20-point swing. Durant and Westbrook combined for 18 points as the Thunder converted 8 of their final 10 shots of the quarter.

In a first-half stretch, Oklahoma City made 20 of 27 shots as the Celtics again looked old. Rivers tried not to exhaust his veterans with heavy minutes. That predicament proved costly as the Thunder took turns draining 3-pointers or forcing turnovers for fast breaks.

The Celtics’ streak of holding 29 consecutive opponents under 100 points was nearly snapped in the first half. And when the Thunder scored the first 4 points of the third quarter to extend their lead to 76-49, the Celtics seemed incapable of any response. They recaptured some confidence in the final 22 minutes.

“Those three guys [Garnett, Pierce and Allen], I really respect and appreciate what they bring every night,’’ Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “Those guys are champions. We knew going into this game, even when we had the big lead that they were not going to sit down and watch the game go by; they were going to compete.’’

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