- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- They are a spiteful bunch, angered particularly by lethargy.
And while it's been a while since their name has been invoked in these parts, the so-called "basketball gods" returned to the TD Garden on Friday night with a fervor and punished a Boston Celtics team that thought it could sleepwalk past a shorthanded opponent.
No, alerted of pregame transgressions in which the Celtics openly displayed a sense of relief that Kevin Durant and Jeff Green would not be in uniform for the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, the basketball gods went out of their way to scorn Boston in an almost humorous amount of ways.
"You could hear some comments in the locker room before the game, you know, 'Oh, geez, he's not playing' -- which you don't know which way that's going to go," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said with a sigh. "Veteran teams should know better, and we didn't. You could see it, on both ends, there was no urgency the entire night. I asked them to explain to me how [the Celtics] could hold them to 12 points for the fourth quarter, but for the first three you couldn't guard them. All of a sudden you have a sense of urgency and then, defensively, we were terrific. ... Now you're pressing, missing free throws, missing wide-open shots.
"That's what happens, and it's like -- I believe in them -- the basketball gods were not going to let you win with the way you approached the game."
The basketball gods' wrath included, but was not limited to, the following:
Oklahoma City entered the game as the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, making a dreadful 26.5 percent from beyond the arc. The Thunder proceeded to make six of their first seven 3-point attempts, three of which fell in a third quarter in which the visitors built a 10-point cushion that they would hold on to dearly during the final frame.
The last of those trifectas proved to be possibly the most ridiculous of them all. Rajon Rondo nearly blew the roof off the Garden with a two-handed follow slam off a Glen Davis miss and, shortly after, was playing lockdown defense on Russell Westbrook, stripping the rival point guard as the game and shot clock ran down late in the third quarter. Royal Ivey, a seventh-year journeyman with one field goal attempt (and make) to his name this season, corralled the loose ball and heaved it at the basket, banking it in for a 77-67 edge. A Michael Jordan shoulder shrug would have been fitting, but his wry smile told the story of the night. Ivey finished with a pair of trifectas.
Mere seconds into the game, after the Celtics won the opening tip, Paul Pierce attempted to deliver a lob to Kevin Garnett on Boston's first possession. The play unfolded awkwardly and culminated with Garnett being thumped on the back of his head by a Thunder defender. A massive lump immediately developed on the rear of his skull, forcing him out of the game for the entire first quarter.
Davis, whose name had been tossed into Sixth Man of the Year consideration for his stellar play through the team's first 11 games, endured his poorest shooting performance of the season. He connected on a mere 2 of 10 field goal attempts (he entered shooting a sizzling 54.5 percent from the field) and made 2 of 6 free throw attempts (he entered shooting a Ray Allen-like 90.5 percent from the charity stripe, but missed three crucial freebies in the fourth quarter).
Leave it to Davis to identify the only reasonable culprit.
"The basketball gods punished us today," he said. "We suffered the consequences."
Davis knew exactly why Boston was punished and detailed the Celtics' transgressions when asked how to avoid games like this.
"Taking every day seriously, every game seriously -- every moment and every second," Davis said. "It doesn't matter who's on the court. They are all professional basketball players. They are here for a reason. Opportunities are here for them. They took the opportunities to the best of their ability and they won the game."
Echoed Shaquille O'Neal, a veteran of 18 seasons and someone who's surely seen his share of vindictive holy hoopsters: "I think we underestimated that team, shot 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. It's a long season and it happens. We just got to pick it up. It's only going to make us stronger."
That much is open to debate. The 2009-10 Celtics could have set up a separate locker room for the basketball gods, they were such frequent visitors to the Garden. How else to explain 17 home losses, many at the hands of teams the Celtics should have beaten?
Boston said it learned its lesson each time, but kept losing winnable games. It doesn't take much to summon negative roundball karma, and Rivers is hopeful his veteran team learned that lesson early this year.
"I don't think you're ever too old to learn -- players and coaches. But give [the Thunder] credit, they played so much harder for three and a half quarters," Rivers said. "And then our energy matched theirs down the stretch. But even down the stretch, we got two or three stops, and they got three rebounds. They were active, athletic and played hard.
"They really deserved to win the game, quite honestly. If we'd have won the game, I would've been happy with the win, but known that we didn't deserve the win. So we didn't," he said.
"The basketball gods -- you play like crap, you play with that energy, and they'll give you a couple bad 3s. I think [the Celtics] had one, maybe two of them. They deserved it."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.