Maybe the difficulty of the victory made it more rewarding. The listless-at-home Celtics played a passionate, if not always efficient, 48 minutes Friday night against the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
Following two disheartening defeats, Celtics coach Doc Rivers changed up the shootaround routine Friday morning, calling out his team for its inconsistency, chiding players during film sessions. His motivational ploys worked as the Celtics sealed a 108-100 victory with late-game execution and a couple of timely shots, fighting off the expected barrage by All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
The Celtics spent the second half staving off Thunder rallies with pinpoint shooting, ball movement, and some key rebounds, registering a win over one of the league’s elite in front of a raucous TD Garden crowd.
Jason Terry sealed the win with a 3-pointer with 36.7 seconds left after the Thunder sliced a 14-point deficit to 3 with Westbrook and Durant teaming for 22 fourth-quarter points. The Celtics continued to respond, getting four free throws from Kevin Garnett in the final 1:01 to snap a two-game losing streak.
After entering Friday with just one victory over a team with a winning record (Milwaukee), the Celtics played like the legitimate contender that Rivers envisioned.
“I told them at halftime, that was the Celtics, that was the team that we’ve been looking for,” Rivers said. “But can we continue to do it? We have to do it over and over again. There were mistakes made, we kept playing. We made runs, we kept playing. They made runs, we kept playing, no hanging heads, yelling at each other. We played through all clutter. It was like a clutter-free game for us.”
Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 27 points and Jeff Green, facing his former team for the first time since being traded in February 2011, added 17 off the bench in 25 minutes. Durant led the Thunder with 29 points but it required 20 shots. Westbrook added 26, including two free throws that trimmed the deficit to 101-98 with 1:56 left.
Garnett sank two free throws, and following a missed Westbrook layup, Terry took a pass from Rajon Rondo (16 assists) and beat the shot clock with his fourth 3-pointer of the evening.
The Celtics avoided the habit of playing from behind, taking a 3-point lead at halftime and never trailing in the final two quarters. The fourth quarter turned into a shootout with the teams’ combining for 66 points and 28 free throws, but the Celtics were able to get a couple of key defensive stops.
“This was big for us, I thought we’ve been up and down for most of the season, playing well here, playing well there,” Pierce said. “Real disappointed with the way we lost the last game [against San Antonio], so this is a gut-check type of win, look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror type of game.”
After taking Thanksgiving off, the Celtics gathered Friday morning in Waltham for the first time since the 112-100 debacle against the Spurs, when they yielded 58.4 percent shooting.
“It really started this morning, Coach had a good heart-to-heart with us,’’ Pierce said. “It wasn’t much of a shootaround. Everything we do, we should know it by now. He pretty much said what he expected of us and we played like I know we’re capable of playing.”
The Celtics toyed with both taking control of the game in the third quarter and losing it under the intense pressure of Durant and Westbrook. Pierce scored Boston’s first 7 points of the period and Terry added a 3-pointer for a 58-49 lead.
Westbrook again turned on his jets and scored 6 points in a span of 1:40 to slice the Celtics’ lead to 61-57. Those, however, would be Westbrook’s final points of the quarter as the Celtics intensified their defense.
Durant, the league’s second-leading scorer, just couldn’t get comfortable in stretches and often passed up shots. He attempted just 13 through three quarters and only managed two free throws in the final 9:04 of the period.
Also, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks made the curious move of removing Westbrook and Durant with the Celtics leading, 68-64, with 1:58 left in the third. The Celtics capitalized by running off 9 straight points, 7 by an inspired Green, including a conventional 3-point play on a streaking layup.
The Celtics reached the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead but with the scoring prowess of Westbrook and Durant, it was hardly safe.
“I know our guys, they’re going to keep fighting and they’re not going to ever give up,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “We came within one possession. We got beat by a very good team. We knew going into this game that they can get hot and that’s what they did tonight.
“Jeff Green came in and had a huge impact on the game. I love him, it was good to see, but I was hoping they’d have it against Orlando on Sunday and not tonight, but I thought they played extremely well.”
Garnett said the key was the morning meeting, where Rivers reemphasized every player’s ’ role, and the cohesion was apparent.
“San Antonio left a bad taste in our mouth, I know we can play better than that. I told them I know we can play better than that,” Garnett said.
“Doc set us aside and broke us down as a team and I thought it was very helpful. It kind of clarified the air on guys’ responsibilities, their roles, and we came out and played like it.”