Game Preview: Thunder at Celtics

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

By Marc D'Amico
November 23, 2012

BOSTON – Between all of the turkey, pie and good times had by all on Thanksgiving Day, we hope that you left a little room for some great basketball.

Two of the NBA’s elite franchises, the Boston Celtics (6-6) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (9-3), will meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday night in TD Garden.

As indicated by these teams’ records, the Celtics are struggling just a bit out of the gates this season. They have lost two consecutive games to fall back to the .500 mark.

Boston’s most recent loss arrived Wednesday night at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. Ironically for the C’s, it wasn’t their offense that lost that game; instead, it was their defense.

San Antonio sliced up the Celtics’ defense to the tune of 112 points on 58.4 percent shooting. The Spurs had three players score at least 20 points and more than half of their points (58) were scored in the paint.

That’s not the type of defense Doc Rivers has come to expect in Boston. Rivers knows that his team will not be very successful if it cannot tighten things up at that end of the floor.

“We just let a team shoot 58 percent against us. We let a team shoot 50 percent from the 3 against us,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “And it’s tough to win a game, you shouldn’t win a game, if that happens.”

It will be next to impossible to win a game in that manner against a team like the Thunder. Oklahoma City, the defending Western Conference champion, hasn’t missed a beat since its shocking preseason trade of explosive guard James Harden. The Thunder are tied with San Antonio and Miami for the second-best record in the NBA.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the reasons why this team is so great. They are combining for more than 46 points a game, with Durant leading the duo with 25.4 PPG.

Durant is a three-time scoring champ who is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, nearly 45 percent from 3-point range and nearly 90 percent from the free-throw line. That, my friends, is outstanding shooting.

Westbrook is a decent shooter but he scores his points with a different skill set. He is one of the most athletic players in the league who possesses incredible speed and a great first step. He’ll hit some outside shots, but reducing his dribble penetration is the key to slowing him down.

Durant (35 points) and Westbrook (23 points) combined for 58 points Wednesday night in an impressive home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. That triumph accounts for Oklahoma City’s lone marquee victory of the season to this point.

The Celtics, meanwhile, are still looking for their first marquee win of 2011-12. A post-Thanksgiving victory over this impressive Thunder squad would definitely put a large checkmark on Boston’s resume.

Harden’s Gone, But…

... Also long forgotten. The Thunder are 9-3 on the season and Harden’s replacement, Kevin Martin, has been absolutely incredible.

Martin isn’t just playing well this season; he’s playing amazing. You know that guy named Durant on Oklahoma City’s team? Well, Martin has been better offensively than him. Martin has racked up blistering shooting numbers of 49.6 percent from the field, 54.1 percent from downtown, 95.2 percent from the free-throw line, and a true shooting percentage of 71.2. He is scoring 17.8 points per game off of the bench in just 30 minutes per game. Should he finish the season with numbers in the same ballpark as those, he will be the first player in NBA history to do so.

Repeat: first player in NBA history to do so.

The Celtics should pay plenty of attention to Durant and Westbrook, but they’d better keep an eye (or two) on Martin as well.

The Defensive Rondo

There is one word that can describe why Rajon Rondo has ascended to the top of the NBA’s point guard chain: playmaking.

Rondo’s offensive skill set is unmatched in this league. He is the best passer the NBA has to offer and he is absolutely electric on offense.

Don’t let all of that influence your opinion of his defense. He has been an All-Defensive First Team or Second Team performer for the past four seasons. Rondo led the league in steals in 2009-10. He is more than capable at the defensive end and can shut opponents down when he’s committed.

The Celtics need that commitment tonight. Westbrook is pretty electrifying, too, and he can fill it up in a hurry. He outperformed Rondo in the Garden last season and led the Thunder to a victory with 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting.

That can’t happen again tonight. The C’s need the defensive-minded Rondo to show up and contain Westbrook.

Do It At Both Ends

We’ve seen these Celtics play at both ends of the spectrum, at both ends of the court. Only once this season, on Saturday against the Raptors, have we seen Boston excel at both ends throughout an entire game.

The C’s dropped 100 points on the Spurs, their sixth 100-point effort of the season, but they also allowed 112. The offense was good but not great. It could easily improve. On the other hand, the defense needs to drastically improve.

Rivers has noted over and over again that his team’s statistical splits in its wins and losses are way too far apart. That’s an indication of inconsistency. In order to beat a team of Oklahoma City’s caliber, the C’s will need to be incredibly consistent on both offense and defense.