Along with most NBA watchers, the Oklahoma City Thunder are convinced that their sprightly legs and extraordinary team-wide talent will enable them to trump the difficulties of the shortened season and eventually run their way to the championship. As if the Thunder need any further motivation, beating the Celtics in Boston would provide immediate evidence that elderly tortoises are no match for young hares.
Conversely, the Celtics understand that this is the last go-round for their rapidly aging core of KG, PP and Ray-Ray. Here is a golden-age opportunity to demonstrate that they’re not quite ready for the glue factory.
HOW THE THUNDER CAN WIN: When ex-Celtic Kendrick Perkins is on the bench, OKC fields perhaps the quickest five in the NBA. Quick enough to run circles around the old-and-in-the-way Beantowners.
* With Delonte West and Tony Allen elsewhere, Mickael Pietrus is the only defensive stopper at the wing position. Yet Pietrus has only recently returned to action and can’t be expected to have his legs under him. That’s why Kevin Durant should have a field day.
* Durant’s unselfishness will easily find open teammates and thereby discourage any double-teamings.
* Since both Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal have lost their bounce, blocked shots will not seriously threaten Russell Westbrook on his warp-speed dashes to the rim.
* Serge Ibaka has the quickness, spring and determination to make KG shoot most of his shots under extreme pressure.
* With Perkins providing a double-screen unto himself, OKC’s perpetual screen/roll strategies will force Boston’s slow-footed bigs to make so many constant adjustments that a game-full of open shots will inevitably ensue.
* When the screeners roll, they have a knack of moving into open interior spaces.
* Thabo Sefolosha has the speed and the defensive chops to tailgate Ray Allen’s unending use of screens. Sefolosha also has the size to also make life difficult for Paul Pierce.
* Off the bench, Nick Collison can smother either KG or Brandan Bass.
*James Harden can drive either way, has a killer right-to-left crossover, rarely misses uncontested treys, and is virtually unstoppable. This guy is truly instant points.
* OKC’s second unit — Reggie Jackson, Harden, Collison, Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed — is an admirable blend of scorers and role players. Indeed, this group is better than the starting fives of several of the NBA’s cellar-dwelling teams.
* The two-man game played by Collison and Harden is devastating — consisting primarily of handoffs with backdoor cuts used to keep the defense honest.
HOW THE CELTICS CAN WIN: They are a veteran crew who are capable of out-thinking younger teams, in this case by patiently controlling the tempo to frustrate the often quick-on-the-trigger Thunder.
* Rajon Rondo has the zip to run with Westbrook, and also the long arms and the defensive mind-set to compel OKC’s point-man into rushing too many shots and making hasty decisions with the ball.
* Rondo must be extremely aggressive and look to drive whenever possible. Making an occasional jumper would also be a huge plus.
* Westbrook’s penchant to top baseline screens is vulnerable to savvy backdoor cuts that will punch huge holes in OKC’s defense.
* With Eric Maynor unavailable, Jackson is forced to backup Westbrook. Since Jackson is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, he can be pressured and two-timed for profit.
* The Thunder’s bigs are often late to help on pin-down screens and the curls off them.
* Perkins lacks the necessary lateral foot speed to adequately defend opponents who can face-up and go. O’Neal must go to work here.
* OKC’s wing players are too eager to collapse into the paint on dribble penetration. Subsequently, kick-out passes can usually locate uncontested long-distance shooters.
* One of these games, Pierce is going to get his mojo working. Perhaps this will happen in this one. Routinely stationing Pierce in the low post will help him break out.
* Ibaka is a gambler on defense and is therefore susceptible to all kinds of ball fakes.
* While he’s on the move, Durant is frequently guilty of throwing reckless passes into heavy traffic.
* The Thunder show little player movement when KD posts up, making double-downs relatively safe.
* History shows that Durant doesn’t respond well to being muscled.
* One sensible way to defense the dynamic offense of KD is to play him soft and let him shoot from the outskirts. Sure, he’s capable of shooting Boston out of the game, but he’ll be kept off the stripe, and the denial of his assist-passes will prevent his mates from getting wide-open jumpers, layups, and dunks.
* The mid-range jumpers and in-the-lane hustle of Bass can be decisive.
* Boston absolutely must do a better job than they’ve done thus far of commanding both backboards.
* Boston has to slow the game down by making OKC play defense for as long as possible on every possession, by avoiding turnovers, and by taking (and making) only good shots.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Too often, the Celtics are incredibly slow and lacking in intensity at the start of games. When this happens, they have to play uphill for so long that they have little energy left for the endgame. Will they come out of the box limping or sprinting?
- The Thunder have made more of a commitment to defense than ever before, focusing on ball pressure and ambushing the passing lanes. Can Boston’s experience counter this with smart ball- and player-movement?
- Notice how tightly Harden runs off of screens.
- In his exuberance in returning to Boston, will Perkins manage to control himself and avoid making his normal quota of dumb fouls — especially moving screens?
- Will either Westbrook or Rondo abandon their respective team’s game plan and get involved in a match race?