The Celtics had everything to gain and nothing to lose yesterday in Oklahoma City because that’s the way it works when a team like Boston plays a team like the Thunder.
That’s the way it works when just about any team travels to OKC these days. After all, since January 1, only the Nets and Heat have walked in to Chesapeake Energy Arena and strolled out with a win.
The truth is that even the 2008 Celtics would have had a tough time on Sunday, so to think that this year’s team, with everything they’ve been through, would have enough to take down the mighty Thunder was more optimistic than the notion that David Ortiz will be ready for Opening Day; less likely than Bill Belichick and Wes Welker sealing 83’s inevitable multi-year deal with a passionate kiss.
You want to hear something crazy? The Celtics were 11-point underdogs on Sunday. According to Covers.com, that’s the largest spread that the C’s have faced since April 15, 2007, when Doc Rivers sent the starting five of rookie Rajon Rondo, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins into battle against Orlando. I’d say that’s pretty indicative of where the Celtics are right now, where they stand in relation to the cream of the NBA crop, and how much honest faith we can place in the likelihood that this season brings forth anything significant.
What transpired on the floor only reinforced those feelings.
Sure, Boston hung around with OKC. There were even a few moments when it felt like the C’s might steal one. Where you thought: “Hey, look at this! They can play with anyone! ANYTHIIIING’S POSSSSSIBLLLLEE!” Where you laughed at Vegas for laying down such insulting odds: “Eleven points? Are you out of your mind? Have you no clue what this team is made of?!”
But those moments were fleeting, and in the end, as always, Vegas was right. The Thunder won by 12. The Celtics were outmatched. And there’s no reason to believe that anything will be different if these two teams somehow met again in the NBA Finals.
But like I said, this didn’t come as a surprise. No one was billing yesterday’s game as a championship preview. It was the plucky Celtics hoping to take a shot at a bona fide contender. A win would have been big, but a loss changes nothing.
And anyway, it’s March. That may mean the world in college hoops, but in the NBA it’s no man’s land. In the NBA, March isn’t about making statements; it’s about preservation. And no doubt that’s the only thing on Boston’s mind right now. If they’re going to shock the world, they might as well wait until April, May, or preferably June.
In the meantime, we’ll take everything that happened yesterday in stride. We’ll write off KG’s performance as one of those random and inevitable nights when he just doesn’t have it.
While it was unfortunate to see Jeff Green fall so flat, and appear so mentally unprepared for what — in many respects — was the biggest game of his year, it’s better for that to happen now than in the playoffs. And you can only assume that the fact that it did happen now, makes it less likely that it will happen in the playoffs.
We’ll take Avery Bradley’s performance as another sign that health is now the only thing standing between ZERO and a seriously significant NBA career. Of course, the defense was there, as always. I mean, all Bradley did yesterday was shut down the top scoring point guard and one of the best overall offensive players in the league. Russell Westbrook came in averaging 23.3 points, 7.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds a game; he finished Sunday with 15 points, two assists and one rebound — that’s not a coincidence.
But while defense will always be Bradley's specialty, his offense continues to improve, and most notably, his maturation as a point guard.
When Rondo went down, Bradley’s offense suffered greatly. You could see that he was overwhelmed with his new-found PG responsibilities, and never looked comfortable within the C’s offense. But after about six weeks at the helm, Bradley’s controlling the tempo, running the offense and seeing the floor in ways he never did before. He’s hitting threes, and has a mid-range game that’s so rare in today’s NBA. He continues to be the brightest light on this Celtics season, and the biggest reason to be optimistic for the future.
But as far as yesterday goes, the greatest source of optimism may have been Brandon Bass. Can you imagine if Bass is able to bring that level of passion and energy on the boards every night? He had 13 rebounds against the Thunder, which ties his Celtics career-high. And there was no secret to his success. It was all energy, dedication and effort. That should be there every night for Bass, and if it is, the Celtics will be a better team.
Better than the Thunder?
Well, definitely not yesterday. And probably not ever.
But here’s hoping they earn chance to prove me wrong.