When the fourth quarter rolled around, the Oklahoma City defense made some defensive switches; OK, they made a ton of defensive switches, like damn near every possession.
And in doing so, they switched up the game which proved to be just what they needed as they handed the Boston Celtics a 99-96 loss.
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It was a game that the Celtics (13-11) for the most part played with a lead, only to see Oklahoma City throw a ton of smaller lineups at them in the fourth that gave Boston major problems.
Oklahoma City 6-foot-3 guard Semaj Christon played the entire fourth quarter, joined by 6-4 Russell Westbrook for the final 8:45 with versatile 7-foot center Stevens Adams playing just six seconds less than Westbrook. Joffrey Lauvergne, a 6-11 big who plays inside and out off the Thunder bench, saw more than eight minutes of action in the fourth.
And the fifth lineup spot was split between seven other players who logged between 1:39 (Jerami Grant) and 4:54 (Anthony Morrow) of playing time.
That versatility, particularly on the defensive end, was a huge factor in the Thunder's ability to keep the Celtics from getting into any kind of flow in the pivotal fourth quarter.
One of the keys to Boston’s ability to deal with smaller lineups in the past has been Jae Crowder, but the 6-foot-6 forward was on the bench for a large chunk of the fourth quarter after fouling out after having scored 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting.
“That was a big blow,” Boston’s Al Horford told reporters following the loss. “That sixth foul hurt us. We needed to find another way and we couldn’t get it done.”
Head coach Brad Stevens is well aware of the importance of Crowder to this team regardless of the lineup his club faces, but he wasn’t in the mood to hear about what the C’s lacked down the stretch.
The bottom line is once again, they didn’t get it done when it mattered.
“It is what it is,” Stevens told reporters when asked about not having Crowder down the stretch. “You got 15 guys on your team.”
He’s right, although you wouldn’t have known that by his use – or lack of use depending on you how look at it – of his bench.
Boston only played nine players the entire game.
They played 11 players all night, which included all 10 playing in the fourth. The only player who saw action that didn’t play in the fourth was Victor Oladipo who suffered a sprained wrist injury in the first quarter and was unable to return afterwards.
While there were a number of reasons contributing to Boston’s struggles against Oklahoma City’s smaller defenders, the biggest problem identified by the Celtics as to why their offense stalled down the stretch was lack of ball movement.
“That’s pretty much all I can say really,” said Boston’s Marcus Smart.
Boston had 28 assists for the game, with six coming in the fourth quarter.
But the bigger problem for Boston’s offense was because the ball movement had slowed down considerably, it allowed the Thunder to force more turnovers.
“We just stopped moving the ball,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley. “We took some bad shots and we weren’t able to score the ball.”
Boston committed just 14 turnovers for the game, but five game in the fourth. Meanwhile, the Thunder had five assists in the fourth with just one turnover, while shooting 60 percent from the field and 50 percent (2-for-4) on 3’s.
The late-game struggles, the problems with handling smaller lineups effectively, it’s all foreign to a Celtics team that’s trying to figure out how to better close out games; particularly those on nights when they played well enough to give themselves a shot at success.
“We gotta get back to it,” Crowder told reporters after the game. “I feel like we have too many possessions late where all the guys aren’t on the same page. That’s very rare for us. It’s kind of like a trending thing for us late in games when we need all five guys on the court to be on the same page. After we keep watching film and getting better, we’ll have better communication on the court. But that’s been the main thing that we didn’t have in the past, that we’re having now.”