OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
at BOSTON CELTICS
Tip-off: Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
The Celtics and Thunder are each looking to find a solid rhythm as the playoffs approach.
The Boston Celtics have not exactly been on fire as of late—in fact, they're in something of a slump. Boston has lost three of its last four, with the losses coming against three solid teams (Indiana, Washington and New Orleans) and the win coming against the tanking Orlando Magic. Boston seems secure in its hold on the second seed in the Eastern Conference standings, but they gap between them and the ever-improving Toronto Raptors seems to now widen each week. Contrary to expectations they established earlier in the season, this version of the Celtics does not seem like a real contender to advance to the NBA Finals, let alone win it. One of the NBA's other most perplexing teams is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who spent weeks searching for a new identity after losing irreplaceable SG Andre Roberson to a season-ending injury. It now seems like they may have found one, as they enter a Tuesday-night game in Boston riding a six-game winning streak, most recently a startling road win against the aforementioned Raptors. These two teams met early in the season in OKC on November 3, when Boston came away with a 101-94 win in the midst of a 16-game winning streak. Likely the primary reason for the Celtics' recent slump is injuries, as PG Marcus Smart, SG Jaylen Brown and, most importantly, PG Kyrie Irving have missed recent games with injuries. All three will remain out on Tuesday night. PF Daniel Theis is also gone for Boston after suffering a torn meniscus approximately a week ago.
For the Thunder, their recent surge has had a surprising power source: SF Corey Brewer. A two-time national champion at Florida with now-Thunder head coach Billy Donovan a decade ago, the 32-year-old has given Oklahoma City a spark on both ends of the floor. That dynamism was best demonstrated in a win over the Clippers on Friday when he snatched six steals to go along with 22 points. He's not the defender Roberson was—almost nobody is—but he's solid on the perimeter, and his (admittedly unsustainable) .429 three-point percentage in his eight games with OKC is a vast improvement on Roberson's terrible jumpshot. While Brewer found a role on his team almost immediately, the came cannot be said of SF Carmelo Anthony. Recently, though, Melo's found something of a rhythm, shooting 44.2% from deep in the month of March. If he can do that and get after it a little more on the boards, he'll be the piece the Thunder were hoping they'd get when they traded for him. While it's hard to forget Anthony's old age due to his recent decline, it's easy to forget just how young C Steven Adams still is. (He's 24.) Adams is an above average defender and rebounder, and he can clean up underneath for occasionally high-scoring performances, like his 25 points against Toronto on Sunday. Then, of course, there are the superstars, PG Russell Westbrook and SF Paul George. George hasn't been spectacular as of late from a scoring perspective, but Brewer's emergence figures to free him up to play more effectively on the offensive end. Westbrook was phenomenal against the Raptors with a line of 37 points (15-22 FG), 13 rebounds and 14 assists. It was his fifth straight triple-double, and at 25.3 PPG / 9.7 RPG / 10.2 APG, he's quietly close to averaging a triple-double for the second consecutive season.
With no Kyrie, no Jaylen and no Smart, needless to say the Celtics are significantly shorthanded—and the absence of Theis shouldn't be underestimated, either. Without those three guards, Boston's starting lineup skews big: PG Terry Rozier and SF Jayson Tatum in the backcourt, with PFs Marcus Morris and Al Horford playing alongside C Aron Baynes. Their help off the bench is primarily frontcourt players, too, with PG Shane Larkin being the only reserve guard. While Horford is the best of Boston's uninjured players, one of his best skills is facilitating Irving—he's not likely to light up the scoreboard on his own. He only had six points in Sunday's loss to New Orleans. Tatum, a rookie, is now their go-to scorer. He had a team-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting against the Pelicans, showing he can still be efficient when charged with lead scoring duties. Rozier is an excellent and well-rounded guard, perhaps the best backup point guard in the league. He's averaging 15.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG and 4.3 APG in the month of March, and is shooting nearly 40% from three in those seven games. Morris has missed a significant number of games this year, but is averaging over 24 MPG in games he does play in—in his last five, he's played 34.4 MPG. He showed the kind of difference-maker he can be last Wednesday when he dropped 31 points on his old team, the Washington Wizards. C Greg Monroe, a midseason addition, often plays more minutes off the bench than Baynes does as a starter. He's one of Boston's better pure scorers, especially among bigs.