7:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Celtics -4.5, Over/Under: 210
The Russell Westbrook Show hits Beantown tonight as the Boston Celtics host the Oklahoma City Thunder in an interconference battle between Postseason hopefuls. Hopefuls of course is a relative term, for at times it must seem like the NBA’s Eastern Conference and Western Conference are paralleling alternate realities. While these teams have very similar records, one remains comfortably towards the top of the former, while another is treading dangerously close to the fringes of the latter. And that is how one should describe the Thunder (17-12, 7th in Western Conference), who run the risk of getting swallowed up in the perennially competitive Western Conference, no matter how otherworldly the exploits of their star Guard may be. Otherworldly is a very appropriate term to describe the play of Westbrook (31.3 PTS, 42.7% FG, 32.3% 3FG, 10.5 REB, 10.8 AST, 1.3 STL), who appears to have a very legitimate chance of making some serious NBA History; IF he can keep up this pace, he would become the first player since Oscar Robertson did so in the 1961-1962 campaign to average a Triple-Double over the duration of a season. The five-time All-Star has accumulated a Triple-Double on thirteen occasions thus far, including one stretch where he posted nine in eleven games. It’s not like this is a glorified stat preservation of any sort, for the Thunder absolutely NEED this guy to put up these kinds of numbers in order to remain competitive out West; Billy Donovan’s charges are 10-3 when Westbrook racks up a Triple-Double, opposed to 7-9 in all other games. So in other words, if he’s been an assist or rebound short of reaching that mark, his team is struggling to win games. That’s right, folks, the margin is that thin. Then again, this was precisely the situation that many envisioned when former MVP and four-time League Scoring Champion Kevin Durant departed in Free Agency, as Oklahoma City for all intents and purposes has become Westbrook or bust these days. With a sorely lacking Supporting Cast, Donovan runs the risk of burning the league’s scoring leader out before they reach the Finish Line, as the Thunder have lost four out of their last seven outings heading into tonight’s contest. Remember, Management shipped Power Forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando in a trade that netted versatile Guard Victor Oladipo (16.5 PTS, 45.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.8 AST), with the vision of the third-year prospect becoming the Robin to Westbrook’s Batman. However, Oladipo has missed five straight games now dealing with a sprain to his right wrist, with Donovan setting no particular timetable for his return. As you can imagine, that doesn’t really leave much to the imagination in support of Westbrook, with big men such as Enes Kanter (12.6 PTS, 55.2% FG, 6.1 REB, 0.9 BLK) and Steven Adams (11.7 PTS, 58.2% FG, 7.4 REB, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK) being the only other Thunder players to average in double-figures in scoring. The problem is that due to their size, Donovan can’t really play them together too often, leaving not nearly enough scoring threats on the court. If you thought that this team’s depth was a problem last year, wait until you get a look at them now; in Wednesday’s 121-110 victory at New Orleans, the Thunder’s Starting Five accounted for sixty-nine total points, with Westbrook scoring forty-two of that total, while the likes of Anthony Morrow and Rookie Center Domantas Sabonis contributed just three points apiece. This is a real problem for Oklahoma City, who in addition to getting Oladipo healthy, must find a way to get more production from the rest of their roster. Donovan has tried to get as many players involved as possible, with a dozen of their number logging at least twelve minutes of action, but again, it’s been the quality that’s been lacking. Indeed, quantity doesn’t trump quality in this case. We get the sense that they’re counting on Oladipo to be the answer here, but it also remains very possible that they’ll be seeking out a Trade over the next few months in an attempt to add more firepower, because they desperately need it.
Meanwhile, it’s far more easy going in the Eastern Conference, where the Celtics (17-12, 3rd in Eastern Conference) who despite owning an identical record as their opponent tonight, would be looking at Home Court in the First Round of the Playoffs, if they started today. That’s life in the Eastern Conference, folks, where mediocrity has so oftentimes been rewarded. Now that’s not to say that Boston has been a mediocre basketball team this season (far from it), but it is proof that the litany of poor teams in the conference has a habit of propelling teams up the pecking order. In fact, if the Playoffs started today, three of the teams that would qualify wouldn’t even own a winning record. But hey, you only play the teams on your schedule, and it’s with that said that Brad Stevens’ charges have taken full advantage of that notion, winning four consecutive contests in lieu of tonight’s meeting. Last night, they paid one of their many legends a visit, traveling to Indiana to face the Pacers, whom Hall of Fame Celtic Larry Bird runs the basketball operations for. The visitors didn’t take it easy on the franchise icon’s side, particularly in the Second Quarter, where they completely overwhelmed the Pacers, outscoring them 29-9 en route to a 109-102 victory. Boston overcame a rough shooting night (41.3%) by applying pressure on the defensive end of the court, harassing Indiana into nineteen turnovers, which allowed them to get into transition and manufacture ten more attempts from the field. The visiting side enjoyed a very balanced effort offensively, with six different players ending the night scoring in double-figures, led by Isaiah Thomas, who scored twenty-eight points on 9-of-21 shooting from the field (42.9%), including 2-of-11 from beyond the arc (18.2%), along with a rebound and nine assists. The diminutive Point Guard made up for his overall poor shooting by getting to the Free-Throw Line, where he calmly knocked down all but one of his nine freebies. Stevens received a strong push from his Bench as well, with Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk combining for twenty-three points, nine rebounds, five assists, and three steals. Getting back to Thomas (26.7 PTS, 43.8% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 6.2 AST, 0.9 STL) though, is it any coincidence that the Celtics got back on track once their leading man returned to the court? After suffering a strained Hamstring in a narrow one-point loss to the Houston Rockets, the All-Star Guard missed four consecutive games, in which his team promptly went 1-3, losing the final three straight tilts. However, since his return Boston has won four in a row, with Thomas flexing his muscles considerably averaging 30.3 points on 51.4% shooting from the field, 43.8% from downtown, 2.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists. Simply put, this is what we expected from these guys this season, who have struggled to get everyone together on the same page at the same time. Al Horford (15.3 PTS, 46.2% FG, 7.0 REB, 5.1 AST, 2.2 BLK), their prized Offseason Acquisition, has missed ten games this season, while Swingman Jae Crowder (13.4 PTS, 47.8% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL) has missed eight himself making it difficult for they and their teammates to develop the requisite chemistry of a contender. With that said, it appears that they are finally beginning to come together, for December has been by far and away their most productive month of the campaign thus far; in that span, Boston has won seven of their eleven games on the strength of a renewed focus on the defensive end, limiting the opposition to 99.5 points on 43.1% shooting from the field, including 34.2% from three, while forcing a healthy 14.8 turnovers, with 8.4 of that number being steals. This team has the look of one that is starting to come on, folks, leaving us to wonder what they’re going to be come Spring.