OKLAHOMA CITY The Boston Celtics had one of their best nights offensively in the first half, and there they were still getting smashed by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With key Celtics out with injuries (Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O'Neal, Brandon Bass) and suspension (Rajon Rondo), the Thunder treated the wounded Celtics for most of the first half just how you would a team that's hurting -- put them down emphatically, quickly.
But this is a veteran Celtics team, one with players with lots of come-from-behind wins and a ton of pride.
It came through in the second half, but it wasn't enough, as the Thunder pulled away for a 119-104 win.
After trailing by as many as 27 points in the third quarter, the Celtics closed out the third with a 24-11 run and trailed, 94-80, going into the fourth.
Boston continued to chip away, making it a six-point game after Paul Pierce made one of two free throws.
But a pair of free throws by Oklahoma City's James Harden and a Kevin Durant bank-shot pushed the Thunder's lead back to double digits with 2:46 to play.
From there, the Thunder's control of the game was never an issue.
Boston has too much pride, too much tradition to make a big deal out of playing the Thunder close.
But there's no mistaking that this team, for all their flaws, showed the kind of fight that makes you wonder just how they would have fared had they had one, maybe two more bodies available.
The strong play at the end of the third by Boston and into the fourth, was similar to how they began the game.
Boston opened the game playing surprisingly well, jumping out to a 22-12 lead.
The double-digit deficit may have been just the wake-up call the Thunder needed, as they responded with a furious 23-3 run to close out the first quarter which ended with them ahead, 35-25.
Oklahoma City continued to pour on the points in the second before gong into the half with a commanding 72-49 lead.
Kevin Garnett, who returned to the Celtics lineup after missing a pair of games to attend to a personal family matter, was very productive for the C's.
At the half, he had 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting with eight rebounds.
Now the C's hit the All-Star break after going 0-for-the-road in what players and coaches alike said would be a telling trip.
Truthfully, it only confirmed what we have seen play out most of the season in Boston.
This team can't stay healthy. And because of that, no one -- not Rivers, not Danny Ainge, not the players -- has a true feel for whether this team will ever reach its potential.
That puts Ainge, president of basketball operations, in a tough spot. He has said that he wants to see how this team, when healthy, functions on the floor.
But if they can never stay healthy enough to play, the pursuit of potential trades between now and the NBA trading deadline will only increase.
"It's tough, especially when you go on this road trip, and you just want to be healthy," Rivers said recently. "And you just haven't had that opportunity. This is a road trip I've really been looking forward to. We thought a week ago, Kevin was going to be good and Brandon (Bass) was going to be healthy and now you don't have either ... that makes it a tough trip."
Kevin Garnett returned from a two-game absence attending to a personal matter, and didn't seem to miss a beat. Despite being the Celtic's primary big man -- which made targeting him defensively a no-brainer for the Thunder -- Garnett had 23 points along with 13 rebounds for his team-leading ninth double-double of the season.
"He was terrific to watch and compete," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
It was a good thing that Paul Pierce was getting to the free throw line. For most of the game, Pierce struggled mightily to make shots before finishing with a 5-for-15 shooting line. Him getting into early foul trouble, however, posed an even bigger problem for Boston.
"I hurt us by getting into foul trouble," Pierce acknowledged. "But overall, I saw positive things from this game."
Like his success at beating his man off the dribble and getting into the paint which, more often than not, resulted in free throws. Despite his poor shooting, Pierce still managed to score 23 points, good enough to share team-high scoring honors with Garnett.
James Harden continues to be the best backup in the NBA, a major cog in the Thunder's machine-like precision when it comes to winning. Harden finished with 17 points on 6-for-10 along with seven assists and two steals.
With Oklahoma City leading 108-101 with 3:31 to play, Paul Pierce went to the free throw line with a chance to make it a five-point game. He missed the first, but made the second. The Celtics could not get any closer as the Thunder finished the game with an 11-2 run.
BY THE NUMBERS
4: That would be the number of starters (Jermaine O'Neal, Rajon Rondo) or rotation players (Brandon Bass, Chris Wilcox) the Celtics were missing against the Thunder.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"This effort we played with tonight is what we need to do every game from here on out."- Celtics guard Ray Allen.