BOSTON â€” An hour before his Boston Celtics took the court against a Thunder team down two starters, one of whom happened to be the league's leading scorer, Doc Rivers was asked if he had to remind his players how good Oklahoma City is even without its star.
â€œIf I don't, they will,â€ said Rivers, without hesitation, of the Thunder. â€œThey'll know pretty quickly.â€
The Celtics coach continued, his next sentence foreshadowing what soon led to his team's downfall.
â€œIf you have to remind your guys to be ready to play, then you've probably got more issues than you need â€” at least on that given night,â€ Rivers said.
As fate would have it, the injury-ravaged Thunder would give Boston plenty of problems Friday night, eventually stunning the star-studded Celtics 89-84, before a sold out crowd of 18,624 inside TD Garden.
Oklahoma City did it without Kevin Durant, who missed his first game of the year due to a sprained left ankle, and forward Jeff Green, who sat out his sixth game in the past seven contests because of the same injury.
In their absence, Russell Westbrook led a balanced and brilliant charge, racking up 31 points, six rebounds and four assists as the Thunder became the first team to beat the Celtics at home.
â€œEverybody stepped up,â€ Westbrook said. â€œThat's kind of how it's going to have to be. Guys are down. Other guys are going to have to come in and be ready to play.â€
The Celtics looked lethargic from the start, turning the ball over on their first four possessions and seemingly thinking they could sleepwalk their way to a victory. But by the time Boston tried to turn it on, it was the Thunder that was in cruise control. OKC never trailed in the second half and took the lead for good on a Nick Collison layup with 6:52 remaining in the second quarter.
By design, the Thunder, which typically likes to push the pace, slowed the game's tempo. On several possessions, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was seen extending an open palm to instruct Westbrook to be patient as he brought the ball up the court. Westbrook then imitated that same open palm to his teammates, patting down on the air to settle the game's speed.
That strategy led the Thunder to a 49-46 halftime lead, setting a season-low for an opponent's first-half point total.
â€œControlling the game was the most important part of our game plan,â€ Brooks said. â€œAnd Russell did a phenomenal job of just controlling the tempo and making sure everybody was in their place before the play was run. We did a good job controlling the tempo.â€
The Thunder held a 77-69 lead after three quarters and overcame a horrid 2-for-18 shooting performance in the fourth to seal the win. OKC's last made field goal came on an Eric Maynor jumper with 9:28 left to play. But in the final six minutes, the Thunder compensated for its suddenly cold shooting touch by coming up with hustle plays in the form of three takeaways, which included one charge by Royal Ivey, and two huge offensive rebounds by Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka that extended possessions and helped milk the clock.
Over that same span, the Thunder iced the game by sinking six of six free throws, while the Celtics misfired on four critical freebies.
After the game, Rivers and at least two of his players made reference to a lack of reverence for the Thunder and the game.
â€œI think we underestimated that team,â€ said Celtics center Shaquille O'Neal. â€œShot ourselves in the foot. It's kind of hard in this league to get up for certain people. Tonight, we disrespected the basketball gods. We paid for it.â€