The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming to town to square off against the Boston Celtics, and they’re on a relative roll. The Thunder - who were expected to be the worst team in basketball by many this year - have won five of their last eight contests.
The Celtics are riding some good vibes of their own, coming off of a convincing victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and now winners of six of their last nine games. Let’s take a look at some of the key aspects of the matchup that will define who is likely to keep their winning ways rolling.
1 - Can the Celtics avoid heavy legs?
Boston is on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off an emotional victory over a historic rival. They’ve been short several key players due to injury and have had to tax out their healthy players a little more than ideal to start the year.
The Celtics should win on talent regardless, but there is some serious trap game potential here. The Thunder are better than their reputation as a bunch of hapless tankers might suggest. They play hard every night and have proven to be a surprisingly competent defensive outfit. OKC ranks 13th in non-garbage-time defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Thunder’s offense has been a mess to start the year, but the team’s effort and defense keeps them in games against teams that opt not to lock in and slow them early, and they’ve got a couple of players in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lugentz Dort who are capable of getting red hot and taking their team home down the stretch.
Boston should hit the gas early and try to build up a sizeable lead before it starts to feel the effects of the back-to-back later in the game.
2 - Preparing for the pick-and-pop
The Thunder are attempting to build an offensive ecosystem where essentially every player on the floor is capable of doing a little bit of everything. That vision is far from a reality at the moment, but it still influences their style of play in the present.
OKC starts Jeremiah Robinson-Earl as a small ball center. They love to run the pick-and-pop with him. He’s a decent threat from beyond the arc as a big, canning 35.0 percent of his threes to-date.
The Celtics will likely switch that action to start the game. Robinson-Earl isn’t a threatening enough post player to worry them about mismatches. The greater fear is allowing Gilgeous-Alexander to attack Boston bigs off the bounce. SGA is slithery ballhandler with all sorts of wrong-footed, off-balance finishing ability. Al Horford may have the chops to defend him in isolation consistently, but asking any of the Celtics’ backup options to do so could be a dicey proposition.
(NOTE: If Robert Williams is available, he too may be able to handle some time defending SGA on the perimeter)
3 - Dort
Have you ever played pick-up against a football player? It’s a miserable experience. Even if you win you wind up exhausted and battered. That’s roughly what it is like to match up with Lu Dort. The Thunder’s wrecking ball of a wing is strong as an ox and seems to play the game with an endless amount of energy.
Dort made his bones as a physical perimeter defender, but he’s consistently added offensive polish to his game. He’s been on something of a roll lately, scoring 20+ points in five of OKC’s last six games. Dort has been bombing away from three and using his rugged frame and explosiveness to rumble towards the hoop when defenders close out too hard.
Boston has a strong competitive psychopath of its own in Marcus Smart and another potential option to defend Dort if Jaylen Brown is available to play. The Celtics might be wise to use Smart on Gilgeous-Alexander either way. He’s a more gifted and dangerous offensive threat. If Brown is out, then Boston may have trouble with Dort.