Game Preview: Celtics at Thunder

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – Believe it or not, the Boston Celtics (15-16) will wrap up the first half of their season when they take on the Thunder (25-7) at 7 p.m. tonight in Oklahoma City.

A road win over the Thunder tonight would return the Celtics to the .500 mark as they head into their short break over All-Star weekend. That would be a great step for the team from a mental standpoint, but it won’t be an easy task to complete.

Boston has been crushed with injuries and key absences over the past couple of weeks and is mired in a slump that has seen it lose six of its past seven games. The Celtics will not be anywhere near full strength tonight, either, when they take on the top team in the Western Conference.

Rajon Rondo will complete his two-game, NBA-mandated suspension tonight, meaning that Avery Bradley will receive his 10th career start. Rondo was suspended for two games by the league on Monday for throwing a basketball at a referee during Sunday’s loss in Detroit.

In addition to Rondo’s absence the Celtics will be without their sixth man, Brandon Bass. Bass has missed the past five games with a sore left knee. The availability of Jermaine O’Neal (sore left wrist) and Chris Wilcox (right adductor strain) is also unknown. They are both listed as day-to-day after suffering their injuries Monday night in Dallas.

That’s one-third of Boston’s roster that will either not play tonight or will be a game-time decision, and that’s not even the end of the list. Kevin Garnett has missed the past two games due to personal reasons and no word has been released as to if he’ll play in tonight’s game.

All of these factors have created a tall order for the C’s to handle tonight. Oklahoma City has been one of the top teams in the league all season long and comes into tonight’s action having won its past three games by an average of 12.3 PPG.

A likely trio consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has spearheaded the Thunder’s surge. That group made history during Oklahoma City’s win over Denver on Sunday, as they became the first teammates in NBA history to score at least 50 points (Durant), 40 points (Westbrook), and record a triple-double (Ibaka) in the same game. They combined for 104 points, 27 rebounds, 12 assists and 12 blocks in that contest.

To follow up that performance, Durant and Westbrook scored 31 points apiece during Oklahoma City’s 101-93 victory over the Hornets Monday night.

A healthy Boston squad wasn’t able to slow those two players down back on Jan. 16 when the Thunder grabbed a 97-88 victory in TD Garden. Durant and Westbrook had nearly identical box scores during that game and combined for 53 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.

The Celtics will not be at full strength tonight, and that is never a good sign heading into a matchup with a premier opponent. However, this Boston team has shown this season that it can beat good teams while missing some of its best players.

Completing that task again tonight would send the Celtics into the All-Star break on a high note. Returning to .500 doesn’t sound like a big step, but it would be a momentum starter for Boston, especially considering that it should be at or near 100 percent healthy when it returns to action on Feb. 29.

Bradley’s Defense

Bradley has started nine games this season and proven that he can be a terror at the defensive end. He has taken opposing point guards completely out of the game on several occasions, helping to spark the C’s to victory.

Doing so again tonight will be nearly impossible against one of the top point guards in the league in Westbrook. Westbrook’s athleticism and quickness are what make him so great. Heck, Rondo couldn’t even close him down back in January.

There is no doubt that Doc Rivers will be in Bradley’s ear prior to tipoff tonight. He will instruct his young point guard to play with a high level of defensive intensity throughout the game with the goal of disrupting Westbrook’s offense. It won’t be easy, but if Bradley wants to live up to the “best on-ball defender in the league” title some have given him, these are the types of battles he needs to win.

Would Small-Ball Work?

It’s clear that the Celtics may head into tonight’s game knowing that they’ll need to play a lot of small-ball. It’s actually possible that they could be without their top four big men, though they hope Garnett will return to action tonight.

This begs the question: Will small-ball work against this Thunder team? The initial thought would be a resounding ‘No,’ but that may not be the true answer.

Oklahoma City has a ton of length and athleticism, from its point guard to its center. But when you take into account that the Thunder’s starting big men, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, score nearly all of their points off of dunks and spare-change baskets, it tells us that small-ball might actually work against them.

If the C’s go small against the Thunder, the one area they’ll need to worry about is rebounding. Other than that, playing a small lineup tonight could actually work in Boston’s favor by pulling Oklahoma City’s shot blockers out of the paintespn.

A Little Offense, Please?

To say Boston’s offense has been anemic this season might be an understatement. The Celtics head into tonight’s action ranked 27th in the league in scoring, with an ugly average of 88.9 PPG. Interestingly enough, it hasn’t been that the Celtics haven’t shot the ball well this season, it’s that they haven’t shot the ball enough.

The Celtics average only 91 offensive possessions per game this season, which ranks ahead of only New Orleans. When they do shoot the ball, though, they make their shots. Boston ranks seventh in the league in both field goal percentage (45.4 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (38.0 percent) and are also in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage.

So this isn’t a case of Boston losing its ability to shoot the ball. Instead, it is struggling to get enough shots off due to turnovers and a slow pace. The C’s will be taking on one of the top defenses in the league tonight, as opponents shoot 42.3 percent from the floor against Oklahoma City, but if they set solid screens, take care of the ball and push the pace, they should be able to put some points on the board.