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Preview: Celtics-Thunder

Is there a more interesting team in the NBA right now than the Oklahoma City Thunder [1]? They are not yet a championship contender and Kevin Durant [2]is not yet the best player in the league, but as Doc Rivers [3] has said several times this season, “It’s coming.”

Durant is almost too good to be true. A legit superstar with a likable game and personality to match, he and the Thunder will be the story on the league during the first round of the playoffs and for however long they can stick around.

There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that if the Celtics [4] had been fortunate enough to get the top pick in the 2007 draft they would have selected Durant. It is already one of the great what-ifs for the franchise. Had they taken Durant, would they still have gone after Kevin Garnett [5] or would Danny Ainge have stuck with the a young nucleus of Durant, Rajon Rondo [6] and Al Jefferson [7]? And if he had, would Paul Pierce [8] have wanted to hang around through yet another rebuilding phase?

We’ll never know, and things did work out fairly well for the Celtics [9]. Banners are forever, after all, but one can’t help but feel a tinge of wonder at the thought of Durant in a Celtics jersey for the next dozen years.

THUNDER (45-28, 6-4 last 10)

Points Per Game: 100.3

Points Allowed: 96.6

Differential: +3.7 (11th)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.3 (15th)

Defensive Efficiency: 103.5 (6th)

Pace: 92.8(14th)

Likely Starters: Russell Westbrook [10], Thabo Sefolosha [11], Kevin Durant [12], Jeff Green [13], Nenad Kristic [14]

Injuries: None.

CELTICS (47-26, 7-3 last 10)

Points Per Game: 98.6

Points Allowed: 94.3

Differential: +4.3 (9th)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.0 (17th)

Defensive Efficiency: 102.4 (1st)

Pace: 91.7 (20th)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo [6], Ray Allen [15], Paul Pierce, [8] Kevin Garnett [5], Kendrick Perkins [16]

Injuries: Pierce (Shoulder, questionable), Perkins (Knee, probable)

Key Matchup: Russell Westbrook [17] vs. Rajon Rondo [18]

It’s a little scary considering he is barely 24 years old, but there may already be newer version of Rajon Rondo in the NBA.

Like Rondo, Russell Westbrook is fast with the ball and a defender who generates steals with his length and quickness. Also, like Rondo, Westbrook is a suspect outside shooter and a good rebounder for his position. The major difference between the two is that Westbrook is more of a scorer. Westbrook has clearly impressed Rondo (see colleague Jess Camerato’s story on the dynamic here [19]), which is not easy to do. This is yet another point guard matchup that will drive the NBA for the next decade.

The Thunder in a Paragraph: When a young squad makes a noticeable jump in the standings, it’s often hailed as evidence that a team has matured and grown up. It could also mean that they were really healthy. The same five players have started every game except for two, both missed by Nenad Kristic. Another reason is defense and an underrated aspect of the Thunder’s success this season has been a major improvement in their defensive metrics. Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus sussed this out last month and zeroed in on the contributions of assistant coach Ron Adams [20], who is the Thunder’s version of Tom Thibodeau [21]. There are many reasons for OKC’s growth this season, in other words, and not all of them are named Kevin Durant.

The Celtics in a Paragraph: Was the loss to the Spurs [22] a serious setback or just a weird blip? It’s worth pointing out that one day after destroying the Celtics at the Garden, the Spurs went to New Jersey [23] and lost to the Nets [24]. (It is really eerie how the Spurs and C’s mirror each other at times). The guess here is that Sunday was just one of those nights in the NBA, but who can really tell at this point? The Celtics have re-emerged as a serious team again, but they haven’t yet earned the benefit of the doubt.

What to Watch For: You don’t need a reason to watch Durant, but considering Pierce’s shoulder injury it will be fascinating to see how the Celtics defend him. They don’t often double-team anyone, but teams like the Nuggets [25] have had success stifling Durant by loading up their defense on him with two and even three defenders. If Pierce can’t play, Marquis Daniels [26] will likely get the call and he’ll be giving up several inches and perhaps a foot in wingspan.