Game Preview: Thunder at Celtics

BOSTON – TD Garden will host its sixth basketball game in two weeks at 8 p.m. Monday night when the Celtics (4-7) play host to the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder (11-2).

Boston returns to the Garden after falling to the Pacers Saturday night in Indiana. That was the team’s fourth straight loss following four consecutive wins. The Thunder, on the other hand, roll into Boston riding a six-game winning streak and own the top record in the Western Conference.

The streaks these teams are on would typically drive the hype around this game, but that’s not the case this time around. There is one storyline that will be talked about by anyone and everyone, and that’s the return of Kendrick Perkins to play against the Boston Celtics.

Perkins, who played his first seven-plus seasons with the Celtics, was traded to the Thunder on Feb. 24, 2011, along with Nate Robinson in exchange for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and a future draft pick. That trade rocked the NBA, and specifically the parties involved.

The Celtics weren’t the same team after that trade and Perkins wasn’t the same player. It was clear that the separation took a mental toll on everyone involved.

Perkins was a member of the 2008 championship team and he was one of the most beloved players on the team. As Doc Rivers alluded to after Saturday’s game, Perkins’ return to the Garden will be one of the most emotional returns the building has ever experienced.

“The Oklahoma City game will be tough for me,” said Rivers. “That will be different. Perkins is a Celtic. I don’t care what uniform he has on.”

The first few minutes of this game will obviously be difficult for Boston’s starters and coaching staff, and also for Perkins. But once that emotion wears off, it’s time to play basketball and try to win an important game.

Monday’s game will be the fifth consecutive contest for the Celtics against playoff teams from a season ago. Boston has lost the first four of those games. They will be salivating for a win over a top-tier team when they hit the floor Monday night.

Rivers and the Celtics have seen improvements over the course of their current losing streak, but they haven’t been able to get over the hump and into the win column. Until they are able to grab that elusive W, the Celtics will continue to look closely at their recent issues.

“You can take positives from pretty much every game, but when you lose, a lot of the negatives are going to outweigh the positives,” Paul Pierce said Friday night. “There are still things we have to clean up, like our rebounding.”

Protecting the glass has been a problem the Celtics have not been able to solve this season. Opponents continue to beat Boston to the boards and the team has fallen all the way down to 26th in the league in rebounding differential, at -3.7 RPG. More importantly, the Celtics have allowed opponents to grab an average of 11.6 offensive rebounds a night. Those missed rebounds have led to way too many second-chance points, particularly against great opponents.

Luckily for the Celtics, Oklahoma City is not known for it’s offensive rebounding prowess. The Thunder are long and athletic but they rank 26th in the league on offensive boards per game.

As long as the Celtics can prevent the Thunder from surpassing that average on Monday, this game should be winnable for Boston. The C’s will need to battle through an emotional start and play well from start to finish, and as they’ve shown over the past four seasons, they’re more than capable of delivering such a performance.

Pierce is Close

Pierce has been going through one of his worst offensive stretches in recent memory over his past four games. He has not made more than five field goals or shot better than 41.7 percent from the field in any of those contests. Look closely, though, and you can see it coming.

The captain went out and dropped 21 points on the Pacers Saturday night and made five of his 12 field goals. He was aggressive in getting to the basket and went to the line for a season-high 10 attempts, nine of which were made.

Rivers has been saying it for about a week now that Pierce is close. His 21 points on Saturday were the first indication, and that means the Thunder might be in trouble tonight.

Point Guard Shooting

If someone asked you which point guard, Rajon Rondo or Russell Westbrook, was a better shooter, what would be your answer? Westbrook, right?

Wrong.

The shooting numbers that Westbrook is putting up this season are brutal. He’s shooting just 43.7 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from downtown. Rondo, on the other hand, is making 50.4 percent of his shot attempts and 37.5 percent of his 3s. Shocking, isn’t it?

Rondo is outperforming Westbrook in those categories, but that doesn’t mean Boston’s floor general is known as a shooter in this league. With both of these point guards struggling from the outside, expect the defenses to try to force them to take as many shots as possible from the perimeter. The result of this game may be dependent on which point guard shoots at a better rate.

Sixth Man of the Night

This game will feature two players who are easily in the running for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Those men are Brandon Bass of the Celtics and James Harden of the Thunder.

The Celtics acquired Bass in December and at the time no one knew how well it would play out for Boston. All Bass has gone on to do is post 11.9 PPG and 6.5 RPG off of the bench while playing the role of the stretch-four in the Celtics’ offense. He is a huge weapon for Rivers off the bench, and when he shoots the ball well it makes Boston much more difficult to beat.

On the other side of the ball will be Harden, who is having a career year while scoring 17.4 PPG off of the bench. He has improved every season of his career and he could probably be starting on the majority of NBA teams if he wasn’t in a Thunder uniform. Harden is shooting 46.6 percent from the field and can put the ball in the hoop in a variety of ways, from deep 3-pointers to explosive dunks.

These two guys will play huge roles in this game. They both double as the energy and scoring guys off of each team’s bench. If their scoring goes missing on Monday, it will put much more pressure on their respective team’s starters.