Heading into Monday’s game, the Boston Celtics are riding the wave of a 6-game winning streak and will be hoping to stretch it to seven as they take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Take the Thunder lightly at your own peril, though.
With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tre Mann, Aleksej Pokusevski, Josh Giddey, and Luguentz Dort, the Thunder have the makings of an exciting young core who don’t know what fear is supposed to feel like — and that’s before Chet Holmgren is factored into the equation next season. Sure, the Thunder should be light work for the Celtics at this juncture of their development cycle, but this is the same Oklahoma team that recently shocked the Toronto Raptors, so you can’t take a victory for granted.
With all that being said, here are my 3 tickets to coming out of Monday’s game triumphant.
Force Pokusevski to catch on the move
Pokusevski is a dynamic big man, built in the mold of the new wave of forwards and centers who can do it all: handle the rock, pressure the rim, shoot threes, protect the rim, and guard the perimeter. However, Pokusevski is far from the finished article, meaning there are still flaws in his game that can be taken advantage of.
For Boston, the biggest flaw they should want to exploit is the young big’s struggles at securing the rock whilst moving. That means denying any pick-and-pop opportunities and forcing Pokusevski into being a roll man, where his butterfingers can be put to good use. The third-year forward is turning the ball over 13.8 times per 100 possessions when operating as a rolling big in a pick-and-roll, and given the Celtics' defensive pressure and personnel, we could see Pokusevski struggle to retain possession frequently during the contest.
However, it’s worth noting that Pokusevski’s struggles come when he’s being pressured, or when he’s forced to deal with pocket passes or bullet passes. Yet, if the rock is put up for a lob, he will have no problem dropping the hammer. As such, the Celtics should ensure they have a help defender on hand to tag his rolls at every turn.
Avoid the mid-range
Joe Mazzulla’s offensive system is heavily predicated on the Celtics pressuring the rim and shooting a high volume of 3’s — both of which should be fine against Oklahoma’s middle-of-the-road defense. However, the one thing the Celtics need to avoid is settling for mid-range jumpers, regardless of who’s taking them.
To start the season, the Thunder are doing an exceptional job of limiting their opponent's success when shooting middies, holding teams to just 33.3% on their attempts, in large part due to the size and length throughout their roster.
Luckily, only 25% of the Celtics' offense is coming from the mid-range area, with the majority of that being between the restricted area and the free-throw range — which I like to consider as ‘floater range.’ Still, Boston will need to be wary of any traps the Thunder look to set, either by pressuring the perimeter with hard close-outs or hedges or by limiting driving lanes with bodies packing the paint.
Let them shoot 3’s, just not from the corners
No team in the NBA has a worse shot percentage from above the break than the Thunder, hitting just 30.3% of their looks. As such, the Celtics should do their utmost to ensure a large portion of their shots are coming from above the free throw line extended, while also limiting Oklahoma’s looks from the corners, which the Celtics have been exceptional at doing all season.
Make no mistake though, Oklahoma is a talented group, who will drive close-outs to their heart's content, and for the most part, will be able to conjure up some scoring opportunities while doing so, most notably SGA. Still, Boston’s defense has been trending in the right direction over the last two weeks, although there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially around the rim and when dealing with baseline drives from the corners.
Far too often, teams are taking the Thunder too lightly and paying the price. Hopefully, the Celtics continue to approach games with a business-like attitude and keep scoring with reckless abandon, because Oklahoma won’t be coming into the contest simply to roll over and play dead. Instead, the Thunder will play free of expectations and look to add another upset to their collection, and yes, they’re more than capable of springing an upset.
Still, I’m expecting the Celtics to handle their business, and finish the night with yet another victory under their belt, but this will be an interesting test for them, most notably in their resiliency and organization on both sides of the floor.