Celtics rally late but fall to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder: 10 takeaways

Celtics

The Thunder look like a genuine contender.

Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis, right, tries to spin away from Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Oklahoma City. AP Photo/Nate Billings

The Celtics rallied late but couldn’t overcome a big fourth-quarter deficit on Tuesday, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder 127-123.

Here are the takeaways.

1. Before we get to the rally, we should note that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked like the most unstoppable player the Celtics faced so far this season. Admittedly, the Celtics are yet to take on Nikola Jokic or Luka Doncic, but through 32 games, Gilgeous-Alexander’s uniquely patient, unflappable offensive skill set was unstoppable for 3.5 quarters. Neither Jrue Holiday nor Derrick White — both of whom are All-Defense candidates — had anything for the Thunder superstar, who poured in 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting and made three of his five triples. He also dished out seven assists and grabbed six rebounds. The only place he struggled was at the free throw line, where he uncharacteristically went 5-for-8 (he is shooting just under 92 percent this season).

NBA.com’s MVP ladder lists Gilgeous-Alexander No. 4, and maybe that’s right so far this season. But the Celtics have some answers for No. 1 (Joel Embiid) and No. 3 (Giannis Antetokounmpo). As a scorer, Gilgeous-Alexander is as tough as it gets.

2. The Celtics showed some grit in the fourth quarter when they could have packed their bags and prepped for a trip home after starting the New Year with games against the Spurs and Thunder. Jalen Williams (yes, we double-checked we had the right one) threw down a massive one-handed dunk in transition with 8:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, which pushed the Thunder advantage to 18, and the Celtics subbed Jayson Tatum and Derrick White in for one more push.

After two empty possessions, Al Horford threw down a one-handed slam in transition, which was mildly interesting.

The Celtics got a stop, and White buried a three, which was a little more interesting.

Jaylen Brown scored a layup, the Celtics blocked Chet Holmgren at the rim, and White buried another 3-pointer, and suddenly things perked up significantly. The Celtics were only down 10 with more than five minutes remaining, and the lead shrank even more after a Thunder timeout when Jayson Tatum caught a lob layup.

Over the next 4.5 minutes, the Thunder scored just three field goals, but a few were big ones: two back-breaking 3-pointers by Holmgren. That kept the Celtics at bay just enough to turn the final seconds into a free-throw game, which is (of course) the problem when you spot a team an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter: you need to play really well, and you need to get lucky. For roughly eight minutes, the Celtics played really well. The Thunder, however, did enough to prevent luck from affecting the outcome.

3. Speaking of unlucky, the Celtics likely would have had a chance to tie on their final possession if Kristaps Porzingis’ size-16 feet were a little smaller. With five seconds remaining, Jayson Tatum drove and kicked out to Porzingis, who buried what looked like a three in the corner, but officials whistled it a two. Further review showed they were correct: Porzingis stepped forward just a little too much. That essentially killed the Celtics’ comeback, since they remained down by two, giving the Thunder a chance to get Gilgeous-Alexander back to the free throw line (he didn’t miss either shot this time).

Porzingis was excellent against a Thunder team that lacks size. Holmgren is nearly as tall as Porzingis and does a lot of things well, but he is very skinny at this stage in his development, and the Celtics were able to take advantage of him with 17 offensive boards. Porzingis pitched in six of those and 10 overall to go with a team-high 34 points on 12-for-18 shooting.

4. Part of the reason the Celtics got back in the game was a defensive switch by Joe Mazzulla, sending Tatum at Gilgeous-Alexander in the fourth quarter. Tatum’s size and length stymied the Thunder guard at a crucial time, and while the Celtics might not be able to get away with that for an entire game — Gilgeous-Alexander is, after all, very crafty and the Celtics wouldn’t want Tatum to get in foul trouble — Mazzulla might be glad to have that break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option at his disposal when these teams meet again.

Tatum was key to the Celtics’ comeback and flirted with a triple-double: 30 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

5. Presumably one source of frustration for the Celtics when they watch the film from Tuesday’s loss: The lead ballooned to 18 with Gilgeous-Alexander on the bench early in the fourth. If they could have even kept pace with the Thunder reserves, the late rally might have led to a different outcome. The Celtics also got smacked in the third quarter, giving up 40 points while scoring 25.

6. Jaylen Brown has been really good lately, but Tuesday’s game was a bad one: 15 points, 4-for-18 shooting, 0-for-8 from three, three turnovers. While he went 7-for-8 from the free throw line, he missed an important one with 1:32 left which — in 20/20 hindsight — was another missed opportunity for the Celtics to be in a one-possession game.

7. This season, Josh Giddey is shooting 34 percent from deep. He was 4-for-7 on Tuesday and forced the Celtics to adjust their defense a bit after numerous big makes in the first three quarters.

The Thunder — who have the NBA’s best 3-point percentage at 39.3 percent so far this season — shot 18-for-40 from behind the arc, a healthy 45 percent despite a combined 3-for-14 from Luguentz Dort, Jaylin Williams (yes we double-checked), and Vasilije Micic.

8. Extremely limited sample size, but the Celtics have experimented with a double-big lineup involving Luke Kornet and Kristaps Porzingis over the last few games. In 29 possessions this season, per Cleaning the Glass, that pairing has helped the Celtics outscore opponents by 45.3 points per 100 possessions which 1) is self-evidently unsustainable but also 2) speaks to how well that duo can perform against certain matchups.

9. The Thunder are very young, and young teams tend to struggle a bit in big moments (look no further than the Celtics’ big rally on Tuesday). But young teams can also make deep playoff runs (look no further than the Celtics team that came within a win of the NBA Finals in Tatum’s rookie season). A Thunder-Celtics finals might be a long shot — the Jokic issue would be a very difficult one to tackle over a seven-game series — but the Thunder have more than enough picks to make a big move or two if they want to go all in this season.

Our two cents: It wouldn’t be a bad idea to seize on an opportunity. Windows close quicker than you’d expect in the NBA, and sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

10. The Celtics return home to take on the Utah Jazz on Friday at 7 p.m. Immediately afterward, they hit the road for a back-to-back Saturday against the Pacers, followed by another game against the Pacers in Indianapolis on Monday.