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Red-hot Celtics face Thunder on Friday
By: Sam Chase - StatFox
Published: 11/2/2017  at  5:03:00 AM
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Tip-off: Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA

The Celtics' young core will challenge the Thunder's Big Three on Friday.

When Gordon Hayward broke his leg mere minutes into the Celtics' season opener, few had a clear idea of where the Celtics were headed this season. On one hand, the team had lost perhaps its best two-way player and would be left heavily reliant on extremely young players like SFs Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. On the other hand, those young guys were highly touted draft picks, and the weak composition of the Eastern Conference meant things were largely up for grabs. Early returns say the Celtics will be just fine, as both Brown and Tatum have stepped up admirably and veterans like PG Kyrie Irving and C Al Horford have excelled as leaders on the court. The Celtics head to Oklahoma City on Friday night, where they'll take on a Thunder team that is still gelling after acquiring SFs Paul George and Carmelo Anthony over the summer to join PG Russell Westbrook. While some kinks remain, there's too much talent in OKC for the Thunder to not compete for a top four playoff slot this season, even in the loaded Western Conference.

Irving wanted to leave LeBron James' shadow to become "the guy" on another NBA team, and he got even more than he bargained for after Hayward's injury. But he essentially looks like the same player he always has, leading the team in shots and being far more of a scoring point guard than a passing one. It's a role that suits him for this roster, though, and he's been a strong enough passer to set up ample opportunities for those around him. After flying under the radar in his first season in Boston last year, Horford has been more prominent in 2017 and shown himself to be an excellent fit alongside Irving. His 27 points and nine rebounds in a win over Milwaukee marked perhaps his most impressive individual performance as a Celtic. Brown appears to have taken significant strides in his second season, and is clearly benefiting from getting more time on the court to find a rhythm. He still has plenty more room for polish in his offensive game. Tatum, on the other hand, is most notable for his startling offensive polish at the age of 19. His ability to find his own shot is essential when the offense is dragging. PGs Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier each get significant minutes off the bench, and are both looking for some sort of breakout this year. C Aron Baynes has immediately become a fan favorite and is remedying some of the rebounding issues that plagued the Celtics the last few years.

After taking a ridiculous amount of shots and posting an insane usage rate last season, Westbrook is probably relieved to have so much pressure taken off of him. He has clearly internalized that fact that he doesn't need to score 30+ points anymore for the Thunder to win. He scored only 12 points each in blowout wins over the Bulls and Bucks late in October. He's still a triple-double machine, though: He had three in his first seven games, and was one assist short of getting a triple-double in two more games. Anthony, for his part, isn't playing all that differently than he did as a Knick. His shot selection is a little better, but the volume is still there. Whether the Thunder will be able to adjust his role a bit—or whether they even want to—remains to be seen. George, who is certainly a better player than Anthony at this point in their careers, has been seemingly more content to give the team whatever it needs on a nightly basis. The fact that C Steven Adams has been scoring more early on this season than he did last year is a testament to Anthony and George's abilities to open up the floor, and also speaks to just how ball-dominant Westbrook was last season. SG Andre Roberson rounds out the starting five. PF Patrick Patterson has the potential to contribute significantly more than he's been given the opportunity to early on.

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