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Celtics face test as they visit OKC Thunder

Celtics visit Thunder in a clash of league leading defenses.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics begin a three-game road trip with a stop in Oklahoma Cityto take on the Thunder. This is the first of two games between these two teams with the Thunder visiting the Celtics on March 20. The Thunder swept the series 2-0 last season.The Celtics are 2-0 vs Western Conference teams while the Thunder are 4-0 vs Eastern Conference teams.

The Thunder are 2-1 at home while the Celtics are 3-1 on the road. The Thunder have three legitimate all-stars on their team and they have continuity on their side, having started the same five players in each game so far. The Celtics lost their third all-star in the first game of the season and have had to change up their starting lineup a few times.

Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan both jumped directly from a successful college career to the NBA. Donovan inherited a team with established stars while Stevens took over a team at the very start of a rebuild. Both have been successful, but most would argue that Stevens has done the better job. Coaching may be a factor should the game be close down the stretch.

The Thunder have no injuries to report. Gordon Hayward is out for the Celtics. Marcus Morris has yet to play this season, but he traveled with the team and is targeting this game for his debut with the team. He is listed as probable and is expected to play. It should definitely give the team a boost to finally have him on the court.

Probable Celtics Starters

PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Jaylen Brown
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Al Horford
C: Aron Baynes

Celtics Reserves
Shane Larkin
Abdel Nader
Semi Ojeleye
Daniel Theis
Guerschon Yabusele
Terry Rozier
Marcus Smart

Marcus Morris (knee) probable
Gordon Hayward (ankle) out

Two Way Players
Kadeem Allen
Jabari Bird

Head Coach
Brad Stevens

Probable Thunder Starters

PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Andre Roberson
SF: Paul George
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Steven Adams

Thunder Reserves
Alex Abrines
Nick Collison
Raymond Felton
Terrance Ferguson
Jerami Grant
Josh Huestis
Dakari Johnson
Patrick Patterson
Kyle Singler


Two Way Players
PJ Dozier
Daniel Hamilton

Head Coach
Billy Donovan

Key Matchups

Kyrie Irving vs Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is the reigning league MVP and is averaging 19.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 11.7 assists. Kyrie will need his newfound defense to slow Westbrook down. This is a big test for the Celtics and is on National TV and so it would be a good time for Kyrie to be Kyrie and have a big game.

Jayson Tatum vs Paul George
George is averaging 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Tatum will need to play play solid defense both in the paint and on the perimeter because George is a threat both inside and out. The Celtics will also need Tatum to produce on the offensive end to keep PG13 working on that end as well.

Al Horford vs Carmelo Anthony
Anthony is averaging a team high 22.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists. Horford has been a defensive stopper so far for Antetokounmpo, Porzingis, and LaMarcus Aldridge but Carmelo Anthony may be his toughest assignment yet. Hopefully he will be up to the task.

With Marcus Morris set to play in this game, we will probably see him for some minutes on both Anthony and George. That should give the Celtics an advantage since Horford and Tatum can go all out while they are in there.

Honorable Mention
Aron Baynes vs Steven Adams
This will be a clash of the titans. Both centers are tough and aren't afraid of banging inside. We should see some mighty battles for position in the paint between these two. Adams is averaging 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Baynes will need to keep him out of the paint and away from the basket.

Keys to the Game
Rebound - The Celtics have turned their fortunes around on the boards by group rebounding. They are 6th in the league with 47.1 rebounds per game. The Thunder are 24th in the league with 42.4 rebounds per game. The Celtics will need to continue their effort and hustle on the boards in this game.
Defense - Defense is always a key to winning. The Celtics will need to defend the perimeter as well as the inside because they have players who can score both inside and out. The Celtics are first with a defensive rating of 95.1 while the Thunder are right behind them in second place with a defensive rating of 95.9. This may be a low scoring affair between the two best defenses in the league. The Celtics must continue to make defense their priority if they want to win this game.
Be Aggressive - The Celtics have to be aggressive and fight for loose balls, 50-50 balls, rebounds, and be aggressive on defense and in going to the hoop. They have to be the more aggressive team and the one that wants it more. They simply have to play harder, especially since they are on the road.
Take Care of the Ball - The Thunder are first in steals with 10.7 per game and also first in deflections (18.6) and forcing opponent turnovers (19.0) The Celtics have to keep the ball moving and avoid playing hero ball but they also have to make crisp passes and focus on avoiding turnovers and deflections by the Thunder's quick hands.
Run and Set the Pace - The Celtics need to run on every possession and try to tire the Thunder's starters since the Celtics are the deeper team. If they can tire the Thunders starters out, the Celtics will have an advantage when their benchs come in.

On the Road - The Celtics are on the road and the Chesapeake Energy Arena is one of the toughest places to play. Their fans are loud and make it tough for teams coming there. The Celtics have to focus on playing their game and not let the distractions of the road take them out of their game.
Bench Play - The Celtics bench is averaging 50.2 points and 19.4 rebounds per game. The Thunder bench is averaging just 27 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. If the Thunder have any weakness it is when their starters come out of the game to rest. The Celtics reserves have to come up big and take advantage of that.

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