The Celtics presence and Thunder’s performance made Tuesday feel like old times

The Celtics presence and Thunder’s performance made Tuesday feel like old times

What a night it was. Just like always, when Boston visits OKC. Since the Celtics first walked through the doors, way back on December 7, 2005, against the Hometown Hornets, the vibe is different from other Oklahoma City games, be they Thunder or New Orleans transplants.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 3, 2024, 3:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 3, 2024, 3:00pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander walked into and out of Paycom Center on Tuesday night wearing a gorgeous green leather jacket.

Obviously in honor of the Celtics being in town, right?

“Nah,” SGA said. “Didn’t even realize til like (after) the game.”

The Thunder superstar had to be the only one at Paycom who didn’t make the connection. Green means Celtics in the NBA world.

And what a night it was. Just like always, when Boston visits OKC. Since the Celtics first walked through the doors, way back on December 7, 2005, against the Hometown Hornets, the vibe is different from other Oklahoma City games, be they Thunder or New Orleans transplants.

Only the Lakers and Warriors, among NBA visitors, match such an atmosphere. Tons of Celtic green throughout the crowd. A not-small surge of glee when Jayson Tatum or Kristaps Porzingis(!) sank a shot.

The buzz is back in the Thunderdome, but it really is back when the Lakers or Golden State or Boston is the team trying to take the Thunder’s lunch money.

Which the Celtics didn’t Tuesday night. The Thunder won 127-123 in a rousing game that matched the NBA’s best record vs. the NBA’s best team. Sorry, withdrawn. Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.

The Thunder is not the NBA’s best team. Not yet anyway. But we’re only going to be able to hold those horses for so long.

“We don’t think anything isn’t possible,” said Santa Clara Williams, using a double negative to counter the double positive of being a 22-year-old budding star who is quite adept at both offense and defense.

Santa Clara hit the game’s biggest shot Tuesday night, a short jumper in the lane, off a spin, that gave the Thunder a four-point lead with 26.1 seconds left.

“We came into the year understanding we could play with everybody,” Santa Clara said.

The rest of us understand now. A few weeks ago, the Thunder was playing good basketball, with a solid record, having feasted on the weak but with a mere 8-7 record against the likes of the Nuggets, 76ers, Timberwolves, Suns, Kings, Lakers, Mavericks, Pelicans, Warriors and Cavaliers. You know? The good teams.

But in the last 2½ weeks, OKC is 8-1, with wins over the Nuggets (both in Denver), Clippers, T-Wolves, Knickerbockers and now the Celtics.

Boston might be the biggest prize of that bunch. The Celtics came in with a 26-6 record, the NBA’s best, and a robust lineup void of holes. Boston, simply, has no weakness, since the trades that fundamentally sent out Marcus Smart, Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogden for Jrue Holiday and Porzingis.

“They sharpen your blade,” SGA said. “The highest level of basketball. Comes down to the end of the game execution. Winning plays. We did enough of them tonight to get the W.”

Frankly, the Thunder has gotten out of the habit of close games. Especially at Paycom, where OKC hadn’t played a down-to-the-wire affair since beating Golden State in overtime on December 8.

But after the Celtics roared back from an 18-point deficit with 6½ minutes left, the Thunder was forced to huff and puff. Those green-clad Celtic fans — many of them probably generationally bred, going back to the Red Auerbach glory days — were enboldened.

“We knew they were going to throw a punch,” SGA said of the Celtics. “Obviously, we’re playing against the best record in the league. They’ve won a lot of games, gone far in the playoffs. We just wanted to win the game at the end of the night, so that’s what it’s always been for us. We just wanted to attack the next possession, win the next possession.”

Interestingly, the Thunder led 110-95 when Gilgeous-Alexander returned to the game with 6:04 left. He usually sits out the first six minutes or so of the final period, and his return with a big Thunder lead usually snuffs out all hope.

But Boston, which sports two defensive gems in Holiday and Derrick White, switched the 6-foot-8 Tatum onto SGA, and Gilgeous-Alexander’s typical strong finish didn’t materialize. SGA missed all three of his shots in those final six minutes, totaled just three points and the Thunder scored just 11 points in the 5½ minutes before Santa Clara’s critical basket.

“We stayed square in giving him angles to the basket, which is hard to do, because it’s every single possession,” said Celtic coach Joe Mazzulla. “So in the fourth quarter, we did a better job, picked up a little bit higher, stayed square, didn’t give him angles, and if we did, we had guys at the rim.”

It’s a testament to SGA’s greatness that on the night of his eventual shutdown by Boston, his final stat line was 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting, with six rebounds and seven assists. Sharing a court with Tatum and Celtic sidekick Jaylen Brown crystalized SGA’s meteoric rise up the NBA hierarchy. From star to superstar to MVP candidate. Gilgeous-Alexander has seemed to jump Tatum on the NBA’s superstar list. Vegas now has SGA No. 3 on the most valuable player odds, behind only Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. Yes, Gilgeous-Alexander is ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But the Thunder is far more than SGA, as the stretch run vs. the Celtics showed.

Lugentz Dort’s tip-in, amid the Celtic timbers, with 3:06 left. Chet Holmgren’s 3-pointer with 2:06 to go, expanding OKC’s lead back to 119-110 and keeping Holmgren’s deep-ball percentage above the amazing 40 percent mark. And Josh Giddey’s two clutch foul shots with 12.1 seconds left, putting the Thunder up four.

Giddey’s shooting and general offensive malaise have been one of the few downers in this wondrous Thunder season, but suddenly he’s Oh My Josh. Giddey has made 11 of his last 21 3-point shots, and Tuesday night he added crunch-time foul shooting. If Giddey turns reliable, the Thunder is dang near unguardable.

“It’s fun watching everybody play well,” Santa Clara Williams said. “We’re all going through life, so it’s cool to watch other people succeed.”

It all made for a special night downtown. Great opponent. Great game. Even dang near blowing the 18-point lead seemed right.

“When you play really good teams, they’re never really down,” SGA said. “That’s why they’re good. You go up, game’s not over, there’s so many possessions in a basketball game. Teams shoot so well from 3, no game is out of hand.”

True that. Until Brown’s irrelevant buzzer miss, the Celtics scored on their final 10 possessions. Two of those were deep balls, and if the tip of Porzingis’ Adidas sneaker hadn’t nicked the 3-point line on his shot that swished with 3.7 seconds left, the Thunder could have been facing overtime.

Porzingis even looked down after catching Tatum’s pass to the corner. But cut him some slack. it’s a long way from a 7-foot-3 unicorn’s eyes to the hardwood below.  

And it’s a long way from where the Thunder was just a couple of years ago to where it is now, a 23-9 record and one of the NBA’s best teams, capable of standing toe-to-toe with the mighty Celtics, on a special night when the winner wore a fitting green jacket.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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