Coming off two stout defensive performances on the road, the Oklahoma City Thunder (4-3, 2-1 at home) return to Chesapeake Energy Arena for a two-game home stand against a pair of playoff contenders in the Boston Celtics (6-2, 3-1 away) and the Portland Trail Blazers (5-4, 2-2 away).
Friday, the Thunder welcome the red hot Celtics who've rattled off six consecutive victories after an 0-2 start, and are tied with the Orlando Magic for the NBA's best record.
Following All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward's injury and subsequent absence, the Celtics' young wings of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Semi Ojeleye have all raised their level of play. In particular, Brown and Tatum have shined with both providing consistent scoring in the starting lineup, averaging upwards of 13 points per game while flanking star point guard Kyrie Irving on the perimeter.
Although Irving's counting stats have remained consistent this season (21.8 points and 5.6 assists), it's his performance on the other end of the floor that has markedly improved. Head coach Brad Stevens has seemingly been able to unlock the All-Star's defensive potential, as the seventh year guard appears far more engaged and competent defensively this season.
Irving's defensive growth has mirrored the team's evolution as well. Through eight games, the Celtics are giving up an average of 93.8 points per contest (No. 1 in the NBA), marginally better than the Thunder's 95.7 (No. 3).
Oklahoma City seems to finally be clicking, having stifled their past two opponents, allowing just 80 points per game. They were especially impressive during Wednesday's win against the Bucks where they kept Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the lane, limiting him to 28 hard-earned points.
Offensively, Wednesday's victory may have served as the team's most well-rounded performance as every player who saw at least seven minutes of action scored six points or more.
Andre Roberson seems to be slowly regaining confidence after scoring nine points and going 2-2 from the charity stripe in 21 minutes on Wednesday.
After a slow start to the season, both squads look to have regained their footing and are firing on all cylinders. Friday's game, which tips off at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN, should be an intriguing matchup between two new-look teams led by star point guards. The Celtics will aim to extend their league-best winning streak to seven games while the Thunder look for their longest winning streak of the season at three games. Each team's frontcourt is likely to serve as the X factor. Will the veteran-laden frontcourt of the Thunder outplay the young, talented Celtics frontcourt of Brown, Tatum and savvy veteran Al Horford? Keep your eye on those matchups down low — they might just determine who emerges victorious.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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