Wednesday, March 31, 2010
TD Garden, 7:30 p.m.
TV: CSN New England
RADIO: WEEI 850 AM
You know those "young and athletic" teams that give the Celtics fits? Well, the cream of that crop might be playing in the Garden tonight.
Boston will play host to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder (45-28) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in a game that has great meaning to both squads, and the C's might have to do it with little to no playing time from Paul Pierce.
Pierce injured his shoulder during Boston's 21-point loss to the Spurs Sunday night and suffered a similar "stinger" to the same shoulder during practice Tuesday afternoon. Rivers listed him as questionable for tonight's game and said that if the captain does need to miss time, it will be one or two games at a maximum.
The Celtics have to hope that he can recover quickly and miss as few of their nine remaining games as possible, as they are in a nightly battle with the Atlanta Hawks for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Missing your leading scorer and captain would certainly hinder the team's ability to outplay the Hawks in the final two weeks of the season.
But whether Pierce is in the lineup or not tonight, Boston will need to find a way to win this ever-important game. Every game from here on out will be critical to claiming that third seed, and doing so could loom large, as it could mean avoiding the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. In addition to wanting to secure that higher seed in the playoffs, the C's are also looking to bounce back from that tough loss to the Spurs Sunday night in the Garden.
Who better to do that against than the Thunder? Boston has struggled against teams that are loaded with young players who play with consistent energy and passion, and this Oklahoma City team is certainly that. Quelling that notion with a win tonight would be a great feat for the C's both mentally and in the win column as they approach the postseason.
The Thunder, who have surprisingly risen to elite status in the league, are also jockeying for position in the playoffs. They are currently the sixth seed in the jumbled Western Conference, but there is only a 4.5-game separation between the West's second seed (Dallas) and eighth seed (San Antonio). So it's conceivable that the Thunder could wind up in any of those slots come playoff time.
Just a season ago, this same Oklahoma City team finished with a 23-59 record, which was last in the Northwest Division and third-worst in the Western Conference. Now, with nine games remaining on their schedule, they've already more than doubled that win total from last year.
It's been one of the most drastic turnarounds the NBA has ever seen, not only because of the turnaround in the record, but also because the Thunder's roster is nearly identical to what it was last season. Rookie James Harden is the only major addition to the team who didn't play at least a quarter of last season in Oklahoma City, and he's putting together a solid first campaign with 10.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG and 1.9 APG.
So how is it that this team has ascended so quickly without adding many key players? The answer comes in the form of two names: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Durant, in only his third season out of Texas, has already cemented himself in as a superstar in this league. His 29.6 PPG average trails only LeBron James' average of 29.8, and as a perimeter-oriented player he is still managing to shoot a blistering 47.6 percent from the field. It's very possible that he will finish second in the MVP balloting behind James when the season is complete.
But as crazy as it sounds, his performance hasn't come completely unexpected. Westbrook's, however, has.
The second-year guard out of UCLA is second on the team with 16.1 PPG and is seventh in the league with 8.0 APG. His game is eerily similar to Rajon Rondo's, as both use their incomparable speed, quickness and length to break down defenses and slow down offenses.
Tonight, it will be Rondo's job to slow down Westbrook and the entire team's job to slow down Durant.
"We really had a difficult time (defending Durant) up in Oklahoma," Doc Rivers said at Tuesday's practice. "We won the game, but we changed our coverages three times in the game, which for us, that's a lot. And in our opinion, we're 0-for-3 -- we never figured it out -- so that's probably why he's a great player. He's very difficult."
The numbers support that "never figured it out" thought. Durant dropped 36 points on the C's on 13-of-19 shooting during the only meeting of the season between these two teams back on Dec. 4.
Boston won that game, 105-87, because they were able to shut down the rest of the Thunder. Westbrook's 15 points accounted for the only player outside of Durant who managed to score more than seven points for Oklahoma City. If the C's can duplicate that performance tonight, they should be able to regain their winning ways heading into the holiday weekend.
Perkins is back
Kendrick Perkins is expected to make his return to the lineup tonight after missing two games with tendinitis in his left knee. At Tuesday's practice, he said the knee feels better after the rest, but he believes he'll have to deal with some discomfort for the remainder of the season.
He also said that he believes the pain he was experiencing prior to the recent rest deterred him from doing a lot on the court over the past two months, from shot blocking to rebounding.
When he was at full strength against the Thunder in December, he finished the game with 13 points and eight boards in only 25:34 of playing time and also played a huge role in keeping Westbrook and Co. from getting to the basket for easy shots. It may be his first game back tonight, but the C's will need him to dominate the paint in a similar fashion to win this contest.
Westbrook is what we like to call a risk and reward player, meaning he'll do plenty of good in a game, but he'll also make plenty of mistakes. The hope, at least for the Thunder, is that the reward will outweigh the risk on a nightly basis.
That's usually the case, but against Boston on Dec. 4, it wasn't. The C's forced Westbrook into five turnovers while limiting him to only four assists. That's an impressive performance against one of the top point guards in the league, and Rondo will surely be looking to make that happen again tonight.
If Rondo and his teammates can corral Westbrook again and make Oklahoma City a one-man crew, Boston should undoubtedly win this game.
Get ready for a close one
The Celtics racked up 105 points against the Thunder in their first meeting, but replicating that performance should not be expected again tonight.
Boston shot the ball at a ridiculous rate in that game, making 56.5 percent of their shot attempts, 52.9 percent of their 3-pointers and 75.0 percent of their free throws. That's a once-in-a-month-type shooting performance for a team and should never be expected.
The chances of seeing that happen again tonight are even slimmer because Oklahoma City is one of the best defensive teams in the league. They are ninth in opponent PPG (96.6) and fourth in opponent field goal percentage (44.2).
Needless to say, the C's should expect to put a few less points on the board tonight and must be prepared for a dogfight in the 80s or 90s.