The Thunder come into Boston off a huge victory against the New York Knicks where the game was not even close. Oklahoma City were able to get whatever look they needed against the Knicks defence and built a thirty point lead by the start of the fourth quarter. The Boston Celtics are a much harder challenge for the Thunder, the Celtics are one of the league’s best defences and have much more talent than the hapless Knicks. Oklahoma City will need to be at their best to snatch a win in the TD Garden. The last time that the Thunder played the Celtics, OKC lost the game in the closing seconds due to late game errors from the players and coaching staff. The game starts at 6:00 (EST).
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Nerlens Noel - Nerlens Noel has been a key player for OKC this season. His rim protection and scoring threat has meant that Noel is one of the best reserve bigs in the league in my opinion. There are very few other players who can claim to have the impact that Nerlens has in a limited minutes role. Against the Knicks, Noel had another performance which was impressive despite the statistics looking ordinary. Nerlens had eight points, three rebounds and three blocks including a sweet double block on Taj Gibson. The boxscore does not jump off the page but his ability to play as a defensive anchor nullified the Knicks’ inside scoring. Noel uses his length effectively, he is not trying to swat every single shot and waits for the right moment to block the shot. Noel was not only effective on the defensive end, his vertical threat created easy offence for the Thunder. Chris Paul kept tossing the ball up and Noel kept up slamming the ball through the hoop. Their chemistry in the two-man game has grown over the season and now it is a really efficient look for the Thunder offence. In a way, it feels like the third act of Lob City, as Chris Paul finds the right pass to unlock his centre’s full potential.
- Hamidou - Hamidou Diallo has played fairly inconsistently since the turn of the year, the fluctuating minutes and his changing role within the team have likely been important reasons in Diallo not being able to perform at his best. Hamidou is still a young player in the league and it can be a lot for a young player to deal with when he does not have a stable platform to grow as a basketball player. In recent weeks, Billy Donovan has found a role which works for Diallo. The injury of Darius Bazley created a lot of questions about who would play the power forward spot in bench units for the Thunder. Donovan tried a few players in that position and Hamidou Diallo is one of the players who excelled as a small ball four. Diallo had one of his best games of the season against the Knicks as he operated closer to the bucket as a cutter from the wing and as a rollman. His energy and hustle off the ball stresses the defence and creates opportunities for the offence to keep flowing. Oklahoma City need to keep putting Diallo in this type of situation, even when Bazley returns from injury. His athleticism and strong motor means that he is difficult to stop going downhill as he proved against the Knicks. The Queens native had his own dunk contest as he got to the middle of the defence and finished with thunder.
- Turnovers - The propensity to turn the ball over has been an issue for the Thunder all season long. Oklahoma City play a style of basketball where the possession will have multiple passes before a shot is attempted, it is style that can lead to turnovers if the players’ focus drops for a brief moment. Against the New York Knicks, the Thunder took care of the ball and only had four turnovers during the whole game. I thought that the guards did well against the pressing defence played by Frank Ntilikina and Elfrid Payton, the guards did not get flustered and simply made the right read to keep the offence running. Taking care of the ball is so valuable as it reduces the number of fast-break opportunities that the other team will get. In effect, a large portion of easy looks on offence are prevented when turnovers are limited.
Wing Combination - Boston are a team who have embraced the idea of positionless basketball when it comes to their wing talent. The Celtics have three really good forwards in their starting lineup who all roughly play the same position. A less progressive coaching staff would bench one of those wings and start a more traditional power forward but the coaching staff has stuck by their guns which has worked really well for Boston. The Celtics are able to switch seamlessly 2-4 on offence and defence without huge mismatches occurring. The major benefit from Boston employing three versatile wings who all above 6’7 is that Brad Stevens has scope for experimentation with the lineups and can get creative with his roster when necessary. It is a reason why Boston are able to go small with Hayward playing at centre, they have the necessary talent to switch everything without losing out on defence particularly if Marcus Smart is in the game. The Celtics can have four play-makers on the court at any time if Stevens needs that creativity, that is hugely important when it comes to winning series in the post-season.
Injury Report - The Celtics have struggled with injuries as of late. Kemba Walker is on a minutes restriction as he returns from a knee injury that was aggravated during the All-Star game. The Celtics had planned for Walker to play a small number of minutes but he ended up playing significant minutes for Team Giannis. Gordon Hayward has also suffered a few minor injuries and it is possible that he may miss the game against the Thunder. The Celtics’ staff have declared that Jaylen Brown will be unavailable for the game against Oklahoma City. The Celtics have survived the injury tumult due to Jayson Tatum going supernova but this can be a heavy load for one player to carry on a nightly basis.
The race for home-court in the Western Conference has only heated up as teams prepare themselves for the post-season. Oklahoma City did not play last night but the team benefitted hugely from Houston’s terrible loss to Charlotte and Denver losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Thunder sit just half a game back from Houston in fifth and three games back from Denver in third, OKC can over-take Houston tonight and close the gap to third with a win in Beantown. Finishing third in the Western Conference has seemed to be impossible for Oklahoma City for the majority of the season but it is more possible than a lot of people believe. OKC will play Denver twice and Utah twice during the last twenty games of the regular season. This will be a good opportunity for the Thunder to close the gap even more and get themselves into a home-court spot.