5 takeaways as free-falling Thunder hand Celtics their worst loss of the season

The Celtics are struggling again at a bad time.

Jaylen Brown and the Celtics took on the Thunder on Tuesday.
Jaylen Brown and the Celtics took on the Thunder on Tuesday. –AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Somehow, the lows got lower for the Celtics on Tuesday.

In desperate need of a victory, the Celtics lost to the free-falling Oklahoma City Thunder 119-115 at TD Garden despite a 39-point effort from Jaylen Brown.

Here’s what happened.

The big picture

For the second straight game, the Celtics came out flat, and once again their opponent took advantage. Oklahoma City — which had lost 14 games in a row coming into Tuesday’s contest — built a double-digit lead in the first half which the Celtics trimmed back down to five at the break.

But the Celtics kept missing 3-pointers, and the Thunder kept finding answers whenever the Celtics rallied. The Thunder stretched their lead back to double digits before a wild stretch by the Celtics — their trademark late rally — closed the gap. But Oklahoma City held on and handed the Celtics their worst loss of the season.

Star(s) of the game

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Jaylen Brown — 39 points, 13-for-25, 11 rebounds, 9-for-9 from the free-throw line.

Brown did everything he could. Without Tatum, Walker, and Williams — and without much of anything from anyone else besides Pritchard — his heroics weren’t enough.

Darius Bazley — 21 points, 8-for-15, 10 rebounds.

Bazley wasn’t good enough to earn the nod here outright, but he came up with a few big plays down the stretch that helped the Thunder fend off the Celtics’ late rally.

What it means

The Celtics were without Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Robert Williams, but that shouldn’t have mattered against the Thunder, and in the standings, any win or loss is a zero-sum game. Tuesday’s result dropped the Celtics back into a tie with Miami and positioned them two games behind the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.

After their back-to-back against Brooklyn and Phoenix, the Celtics had one of the easiest schedules in the NBA the rest of the way. Losing games against the Hornets (without LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward) and the Thunder negates that advantage. The No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round — with 25 percent capacity for fans allowed in the building — isn’t completely out of reach, but the dream is fading quickly. Any confidence the Celtics could actually pull it off is fading as well.

Takeaways

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1. After the game, a reporter asked Brad Stevens what’s next for the Celtics after yet another low point in a season with plenty of valleys.

“We have no choice but to improve and get ready for tomorrow,” Stevens said, referencing the Celtics’ looming rematch with the Hornets. “So that’s all I’m going to do.”

2. Evan Fournier’s streak of missed field goals stretched to 13 since his return from COVID-19, but he finally knocked a couple of shots down on Tuesday and finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Fournier struggled mightily in his return to practice, and those struggles have extended to the court.

Fournier has dealt with a brutal sequence of events — a false positive COVID-19 test when he was traded to Boston, an 0-for-10 debut, a true positive test after he gained some momentum, and now immense struggles in his return that seem to have sapped his confidence a bit. The Celtics really need him to be good when the playoffs arrive. He doesn’t have much time.

3. The only bright spots for the Celtics were Jaylen Brown — whose hot month continued — and Payton Pritchard, who kept the Celtics alive for stretches before Oklahoma City blew the game open in the fourth. Pritchard has deep range on his 3-point shot and impressive body control. His ability to drive into a big man, get into his body and push him backward (legally) and jump back for a basket will serve him well, even though he isn’t particularly efficient around the rim yet.

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As Pritchard develops, it will be interesting to see whether he can become a three-level scorer. He has the tools to be an excellent mid-range shooter, and he’s crafty around the rim.

4. The Thunder essentially dared the Celtics to shoot by going under screens, and that bet paid dividends — the Celtics finished a catastrophic 11-for-49 from behind the arc (22.4 percent from three). On the other end, the Thunder shot 13-for-30 from deep and had some very timely triples from Ty Jerome and Aleksej Pokusevski.

5. The Celtics climbed back into the game late with an absurd sequence. Payton Pritchard buried a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to seven. Then back-to-back steals by Fournier and Jaylen Brown gave the Celtics a chance down the stretch as the Thunder looked shaky handling the ball.

Should the Celtics have unleashed Smart and Pritchard more to hound Thunder defenders? Probably not. When they tried it late, the Thunder iced the game with a layup in transition.

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