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Thunder vs Celtics preview and gamethread: OKC tries to give Boston it’s first L of Super Bowl Sunday

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OKC faces its next big challenge in Boston; will they be ready?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Game: Oklahoma City Thunder @ Boston Celtics

Time: 1PM CST

Location: TD Garden, Boston

Broadcast: ABC

Counterpart: Celtics Blog


Two of the hottest teams in the NBA’s face off this afternoon, in what will surely be the biggest game of the day, in any sport, especially in the city of Boston. Right?

Here are 3 things to watch in a game that could be a finals preview in a world where the Warriors didn’t rob us all of drama:

1. The Russ and PG show

It’s been two good, efficient games in a row for Russell Westbrook. He’s posted two consecutive triple doubles, dishing 28 assists against 9 turnovers. He also has scored efficiently over those two games, shooting over 50% on a reasonable number of attempts (12 and 10) in both games. At this point in the season and his career, the best Russell Westbrook game is a triple double where he is nowhere near the team leader in field goal attempts.

It’s been easy for Russ to not lead the team in field goal attempts because Paul George has been unstoppable over these two games, and really over the entire month of January. PG is fresh off setting OKC’s franchise record for made 3’s in a game en route to posting 43 points. When the Thunder’s two best players play like that- George leading the team in scoring with his incredible shooting & Westbrook being the driving force that leads to a lot of those looks- they are hard to beat.

Can they do it against one of the best defenses in the NBA? Westbrook has a tendency to force it more against the league’s best teams- partly because he likes to prove himself in those games, and partly because the best teams tend to do a better job of containing PG. The well coached Celtics will try their best to shut off PG and goad Westbrook into shooting a lot of low percentage jumpers. Can PG fight through their efforts, and can Russ stay disciplined?

2. Can OKC defend the Celtics?

Evan as OKC has ripped off its win streak, their defense has been merely average, rather than the elite force it was for the first two months of the season. Offense, not defense, has powered this winning streak.

That could be a problem, as Boston’s offense has been just as good as OKC’s over the last 10 games. The Celtics boast a starting 5 where everyone can handle the ball, pass, cut and shoot- even Marcus Smart, who has, against all odds, transformed himself into a viable perimeter shooter this season. It will be interesting to watch Boston’s pass-and-cut machine against the Oklahoma City defense, which looks to trap the ball and force tough passes. Russell Westbrook and Paul George will have their hands full with Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum.

One positive for OKC- they have struggled to defend teams that run a lot of pick and roll and have rolling big men who put a ton of pressure on the rim. Boston does not really have any such players- Al Horford is very skilled and a very complete player, but not a true rim runner. He does love to run pick and pop and facilitate from the top of the arc- actions that will pull Steven Adams away from the rim.

3. Off the Bench

Boston was projected to be one of the deepest teams in the league to start the season, part of the reason a lot of people (including your humble preview writer) picked them to make the finals. It hasn’t quite played out as the team would have hoped.

For one thing, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown, both starters on opening night, are instead coming off the bench after rough starts to the season. Hayward has been up and down all season, struggling to finish plays that he had no trouble making in Utah. His reduced threat to score also makes it harder for him to succeed as a passer, something he was quite good at by the end of his Jazz tenure. Some nights he looks close to his old self- on other nights he looks like the most overpaid player this side of Chandler Parsons. Which Hayward shows up could be a key in deciding this one.

Brown, meanwhile, has been on an absolute tear over the last month, looking like the player who stepped up big in the playoffs for Boston last year. If Brown is feeling it, OKC’s bench wings could have their hands full.

Off OKC’s bench, Dennis Schroder has had two incredible shooting nights of his own in during the team’s Florida swing. Schroder didn’t really do anything novel in those games- he just hit more of his beloved pull up jumpers than he usually does.

If his shooting falls to its normal level, it will be interesting to see how OKC fares in Schroder’s minutes. Billy Donovan has moved away from playing a full bench, preferring to keep either George or Westbrook on the court at all times, a move that has stabilized the team. Lineups with Schroder and PG but no Westbrook have blitzed opponents this season, with a net rating of +11.9 per Cleaning The Glass (to be clear: almost all lineups featuring George have kicked ass this season. That’s why he’s an MVP candidate.

Lineups with Westbrook and Schroder but no George, however, have struggled badly, with a -8.6 rating. Those lineups haven been a little better lately, but a Westbrook-Schroder backcourt needs shooting and defense to survive. George, of course provides both better than any other player on the team, which makes it hard for those lineups to function without him. Finding a way to win the minutes George sits is one of the lineup puzzles OKC still needs to solve to win against the league’s elite teams.


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