The Thunder, having suffered a tight loss to rival Houston at home, now stand at 14-9. In danger of falling back into the middle class of the NBA, OKC now faces the challenge of defending home court against the Celtics. At 13-10, Boston certainly isn’t impressing anyone at this point. The off-season addition of Al Horford, a 4-time all-star, was supposed to give Boston the lift they needed to become a contender. But the Celtics are still only middle of the pack defensively, coming out at 16th in defensive rating. The Celtics aren’t big enough to rebound, and they aren’t big enough to avoid fouling.
On offense, the Celtics are good, but not great. At a 19th rated pace and the league’s sixth highest three point attempt rate, the numbers just don’t add up. If you take a lot of threes, you should speed the game up to give yourself more chances to rack up points. But the Celtics play slow. Boston’s turnover rate is fourth in the NBA, so they’ll take care of the ball at least. The key for the Thunder is to stay big, crash the boards, and keep the pace up.
OKC’s flexibility problem
Will staying big really work, though? Joffrey Lauvergne got no time against the Rockets, and Kanter’s time was limited. There was no room to go for two towers against such a small, sharpshooting team. Steven Adams, despite a career high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds, wasn’t effective. That’s not to say Adams didn’t try, or wasn’t valuable. But fact is, Adams had 4 turnovers and a -12 +/- box score rating. OKC’s slower players were just getting grilled on defense. And on offense, when they couldn’t catch a break, Adams and Sabonis can’t generate their own points.
So that left OKC in a quandry. In a playoff situation, I think OKC would be downright obligated to continue giving Adams minutes. But Jerami Grant came away with a positive plus/minus ratio. I can’t blame Donovan for trying Grant as small ball center. After all, Grant is probably one of the best shot-blocking small forwards of all time. But Grant is a poor screen setter and rebounder. You see, Jerami Grant is kind of like a younger, smaller, more modern version of Serge Ibaka. The only difference between Grant and Ibaka’s games is that Grant dribbles more and shoots less on offense.
So what do you need out of your small ball four next to Grant at center, hypothetically? Scoring and rebounding. I hate to bring it up, but that’s why KD worked so well next to Ibaka in small ball lineups at times. Putting Ibaka at center lost OKC screen setting and rebounding, but KD can score on his own and rebounds really well. So in this lineup next to Grant we have.... Andre Roberson. Yeah. Sure, for a shooting guard, Roberson is a good rebounder. But Roberson was rebounding against Trevor Ariza. Ariza is pretty much the same size an weight, possibly having an edge in both. And it’s not as if Roberson presents any edge on offense at all. Especially not when it comes to screen setting. So that small ball lineup fails, hard, and hopefully we’ll never see it again.
Moving forward, you’ve just got to trust your bigs. This version of the Thunder has very little flexibility, because they don’t have a ton of scorers.
Not falling behind is also becoming a big issue. Against the Rockets last night, the Thunder lost the game because Houston was able to slow things down once they got a lead. And OKC does awful within a half-court offense. The Celtics will slow down the pace late as well, so an early lead is crucial.
Isaiah Thomas isn’t going to play for the third straight game, due to a groin injury. The injury may take up to two weeks in total to heal. The Celtics are 1-1 without Thomas so far, having smashed the Magic on the road and lost to the Raptors at home. Thomas is a major source of offense and distribution for the Celtics, being replaced by the half-as-effective Marcus Smart. The Celtics are still a good passing team without Thomas. But Boston’s ability to generate points, especially in the paint, is really hampered by Thomas’ absence.
Boston isn’t as small as Houston, and can’t hurt Steven Adams (or potentially Enes Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne). As long as OKC stays big, wins the boards, clogs the paint on D, and gets out in transition, they’ll win. Easier said than done. I don’t see OKC running away with this one, because OKC just doesn’t have the firepower. But the Celtics are very beatable, if not blowoutable. As long as OKC doesn’t put themselves in a hole.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 99, Boston Celtics 91.
Injuries: Isaiah Thomas (Out), James Young (Out), Cameron Payne (Out)
Time: 6 PM Central Standard Time
Place: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
TV: FSOK, CSNE