BOSTON — It's a fickle game. You can give it all you've got for 46 minutes, pouring out your heart and soul in search of a hard-earned win, only to see it all unravel in the final two. And there's nothing quite as deflating as watching a night’s worth of hard work go to waste.
That was the case on Wednesday night at the TD Garden, when the Celtics played the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder to a deadlock until the final minutes, only to let up one clutch basket too many. The Celtics' loss, 109-104, in front of a packed and electric Garden crowd, was a hard-fought game that just barely got away. A painstakingly close one where the C's just couldn't finish.
And when that happens, it's only human nature to get frustrated, to vent, to look for a man to blame.
No debate — that man on Wednesday night was Kevin Durant. The 21-year-old Oklahoma City phenom overpowered the Celtics all night long, hitting deadly jumpers whenever he had open looks, and getting to the free-throw line whenever he didn't. It showed in the stat line, as he finished the night with 37 points, including a perfect 15-for-15 from the line.
His name was on the on the tip of every Celtic's tongue after Wednesday night's game. And not all the words that came out were positive.
"I thought we were playing Michael [expletive] Jordan tonight, the way he was getting the whistle," said a steaming Kevin Garnett. "Durant damn near shot more free throws than our whole team."
It's true. Durant got to the line time and time again, and his gaudy numbers were the difference in a nail-bitingly close game at the Garden. The Celtics as a team finished 13-for-17 from the charity stripe, including four makes each from Paul Pierce and Glen Davis. Durant alone was more productive from the line than an aggressive, physical Boston team.
"You can't breathe on him," said Rasheed Wallace, exhausted after a night of trying to slow down the unstoppable Durant.
The Celtics spoke after this game out of bitterness, out of frustration. You can't help but think that if things had only gone a little bit differently in those final two minutes, if only they had found a way to pull this one out, the C's would be singing a different tune. Rather than looking for scapegoats, they'd be heaping praise.
They'd be heaping it on KG, who made countless big shots himself, keeping the Celtics in the game even when Durant couldn't be stopped. On Rajon Rondo, who took over the offense in the third quarter when his teammates began to lose steam. On Wallace, who had a huge night off the bench with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
But after a loss like this, the Celtics were sulking. They needed to let this one sit for a moment, to mull over what went wrong and how they let this one slip away. They were so close, and they just couldn't finish.
This is the toughest way to lose. Nights like Sunday — when the Celtics absolutely collapsed in the second half and let the Spurs run them out of their own building — can be forgotten. Off nights are a part of the game, but nights like this, when you leave it all on the floor and still can't win, these have a way of eating at you.
"It’s a human game," Doc Rivers said. "Sometimes you’re just going to play poorly. It happens. You’re disappointed both ways, but you just — it’s tougher for you when you know you were in the game and you had it, and you still lost it. That’s a tough one. That doesn’t happen very often. When we play well, we usually win."
On Sunday night, Pierce suffered a "stinger" when he collided with Manu Ginobili and hurt his shoulder. On Wednesday, the whole team got stung.
The pain of a loss like this will linger, but the Celtics had better get used to it. In the playoffs, there are no bad teams and no easy wins. Games like this one, where you play well but still can't finish the job, will happen all the time.
The only solution is to brush it off, move on and get ready for the next one. The Celtics are learning that lesson now.