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Thunder vs. Celtics Preview: Thunder Hope to Survive Celtics, 4th Quarter

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The Celtics are slumping, but they were an early discoverer of the Thunder's fourth quarter soft spot.

William Bennett Berry

Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder

In the weeds of some truly terrible 4th quarter basketball, the Thunder have shown flashes of promise during their 5-8 post-All-Star stretch. They have:

1.     Went toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs

2.     Completely dismantled fellow playoff contenders in the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers

3.     Played good defense (99.3 team defensive rating, third-best in the league over that time)

4.     Had role players show signs of re-emerging (Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, Randy Foye)

5.     Melted down so horrifically that numbers 1-4 are almost moot

Billy Donavan is still tinkering with his lineups, going smaller more frequently and even dusting off Payne and Morrow, who were benched in the coach's effort to recreate a defensive identity late in the season. His trust in Randy Foye and Dion Waiters seems unmoved, however, so whether or not he keeps the wing rotation flexible is a big question as Waiters returns to play tonight.

Where They At: Boston Celtics

Brad Stevens has transformed Boston from a feel-good team of young pieces to a formidable contender fighting for the 3-seed in the East. Their battle for the third slot in their conference is more intense than Oklahoma City's, because they could realistically slip as far as the 7-seed if they don't hang on (Indiana lurks just three games back at number 7). They're in the middle of a tough stretch, having lost three of four games by less than 5, and having lost Jae Crowder to an ankle sprain on Friday.

The Matchup

On paper, the Thunder should have this one easily. They're the better team, for one, and while they're traveling to Boston, it will be the second night of the Celtics' back-to-back. No Crowder means Kevin Durant will be facing a soupy mix of defenders, and he should continue to slurp up the killer scoring and rebounding numbers he's been notching over his impressive recent stretch. Russell Westbrook will face a gaggle of quality defenders from a small Celtics lineup, though, presuming Isaiah Thomas isn't cruelly given any Westbrook assignments. [Obligatory reminder that Marcus Smart went off on the Thunder last time and Westbrook wasn't impressed.]

But. The teams played way back in November, and you know how Boston beat Oklahoma City? Via an epic fourth-quarter meltdown, outscoring the Thunder 28-11 in the final frame to snag a come-from-behind victory. Everyone has been figuring out how to exploit the Thunder late in games, and Stevens is certainly capable of continuing that trend. Get ready for a nail-biter.

Prediction: Thunder 99, Celtics 97

2015-16 NBA Season Game 68
(Won 1)

(Lost 2)
March 16th, 2015
TD Garden, Boston
6:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: ESPN, Fox Sports Oklahoma, CSN
Injury Report: Dion Waiters (Probable), Jae Crowder (Out), Kelly Olynyk (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: Nov. 15 (L 100-85)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Isaiah Thomas
Andre Roberson SG Marcus Smart
Kevin Durant SF Avery Bradley
Serge Ibaka PF Amir Johnson
Steven Adams C Jared Sullinger