As of 3:30PM, it is still unknown as to whether Durant will be suiting up tonight, due to a sprained ankle sustained in the Rockets game. Obviously this will impact the overall game to a great degree, so expectations may need to be tempered.
Tipoff: 7:00PM EST
Nearly two weeks ago, the defending Eastern Conference Champ Boston Celtics came into the Thunder Arena to test our young team. As you probably also recall, after strategic bursts in both offense and defense as well as an ample helping of veteran savvy, the Celtics dispatched the Thunder, leaving the team demoralized and confused at 3-3. I wish there were a little bit more time in between the first game and the rematch, which is this evening, so we could have a better picture at where the two teams are headed. Never the less, we can still get an idea of what is to come by taking a look at what we have learned.
WHAT 3 THINGS DID THE THUNDER LEARN FROM GAME 1?
1. The tipping point in a game can come at any point in time.
One of the things that we the viewer learn after watching hours of one team over the course of time (other than the fact that our wives would prefer that we take out the garbage from time to time during time outs) is that the key moments in a game can happen at any point in time. Indeed, the most critical moments happened at the ends of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, where the Celtics knew when and how to tighten the screws and put the Thunder on their heels.
A team counters such shock and awe by first becoming aware of it and secondly taking immediate steps to reverse the momentum (something as easy as intentionally fouling a poor FT shooter like Shaq). These steps are accomplished by having a coach and players who are working together in communication and awareness. I think the Celtics and Spurs lessons have started to take effect, because in the win against the Rockets, the Thunder were on the opposite end and handled the Houston runs.
2. Point guard play becomes amplified against strong defensive teams.
Although the final stats were similar, Rondo clearly outplayed Westbrook in game 1. I think that this is in large part because Rondo plays at a hyper-kinetic pace to which Westbrook is ill-suited. Westbrook is quick too, but he is at his best playing at 3/4 speed, which maximizes his vertical and horizontal explosiveness. The only guy I see currently who can keep up with Rondo is Chris Paul.
The Celtics will seek to put immense pressure on Westbrook this game, especially if Durant is sitting. It will be his job to keep things orderly and not give in to Rondo’s ball pressure and the way the Celtics play the passing lanes.
I would argue that the best thing Westbrook can do this game is not go out and try to score 30, because they will almost assuredly lose. The best thing he can do is find a #1 scorer, be it Durant if he’s healthy, Ibaka, or heck, even James Harden. He has to make the Celtics focus on someone other than himself in order to neutralize their defense.
3. Rebounding is king.
The Thunder demonstrated in the past few games a willingness to improve themselves on the offensive boards. Ever since the Clippers debacle, they have had a strong focus on protecting the front of the rim from offensive rebounding.
Of course they will need to continue this trend, but also need to look at it from the other side of the spectrum – tonight, they’ll be the underdogs. They may be without Durant, and are definitely without Jeff Green. Without the offensive firepower, their key to victory may lie on the offensive glass. The Celtics are big and strong on the inside, and usually win the rebounding battle. If the Thunder can challenge them in this one area and remain solid defensively, they may be able to give the Celtics a scare.
While I think there are things that the Thunder can do to stay in this game, ultimately the Celtics’ fortunes lie with Rondo. He is playing at an extremely high level right now, getting the ball to Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen in perfect spots to get easy shots. He is playing to set up his teammates. It is unfortunate that so much of the game’s fortunes lie on Westbrook tonight, but he is going to have to both keep Rondo from doing Rondo-things, and he is going to have to play at least 50% better than last time if the Thunder are to have a chance.
My expectations are tempered, but I still think the Thunder will make a better game out of it than last time.
Expectation: Celtics by 8