Boston’s best game still not enough to beat Thunder

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The good news: The return of Kendrick Perkins and the challenge to match up to one of NBA’s elite teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder got the Celtics to play their best game of the season.

The bad news: Oklahoma City 97, Boston 88.

Maybe the highlight for Boston fans was the video tribute to Perkins at the first time out, which was followed by a standing ovation. They really could have used a little of his fire tonight.

Boston is now 4-8 with five straight losses, the first time that has happened in the “big three” era. This season in Boston is starting to feel like so many of the Celtics games in it — they have dug themselves a hole with a slow start and now have to fight their way out of it just to make the playoffs.

It was far from perfect, but it was the best game Boston had played in total this season. Rajon Rondo nearly had a triple-double (12 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds) and Mickael Pietrus was a gunner off the bench with 14. The Celtics defense looked the best it had this year.

But this much was clear — Oklahoma City was so much more athletic, more physical so much younger and more energetic. Rondo is the best player on the Celtics and yet at several times and when the game mattered most he could not stop Russell Westbrook. Put simply, the Thunder were better.

This game felt like so many Celtics game this year — not all of Boston’s big three seemed to click (Paul Pierce was on an finished with 24 but Ray Allen seemed to disappear) and Boston struggled at the start. Then the bench came in and couldn’t keep up the scoring pace (Marquis Daniels was the first bench player to score, more than three minutes into the second quarter) and soon it was a double-digit hole for Boston to fight back from.

They did. Pierce led a charge at the end of the first half to keep it close at the break. In the third quarter Doc Rivers experimented with a small lineup (Brandon Bass at center) and that got some fast break points. As the game wore on, Boston’s defense stiffened and they cut the lead to 78-76 with 5:10 left. Boston was forcing the Thunder to shoot jumpers.

The problem is, Kevin Durant can still knock them down. Durant had 28, and when Boston closed out on his jumpers he drove and had a dunk and created other good looks. Then in the role of third scorer usually played by James Harden, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha dropped 19.

But in the end it was Westbrook and friends. The Thunder had been 3-of-15 from three on the night but with the game close late they hit four straight including a couple of daggers from Westbrook, who had 26 points and broke out a new three-point celebration (holstering his gun then… doing something with his hands, I’m not sure what exactly, but it was intentional).

For Oklahoma City, this is what is expected now, their stars stepping up in the clutch to win tough games on the road.

Boston tried to rise up to meet that challenge. They came close but not close enough. It’s a long season, one where it is far too early to write off these Celtics. But until they can get the big three all going at the same time and some kind of bench help, a lot of nights are going to look like this one.