Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

NBA on ABC: Thunder Grind Out Low-Scoring Victory Over the Celtics

The visiting Boston Celtics and the Oklahoma City Thunder were each trying to extend five-game winning streaks on Sunday afternoon at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Celtics needed to control the pace of the game and suppress the overall point total, and for the most part, they did just that. Of course, this tells us exactly how large the gap in talent is between the Thunder and the Celtics given the eventual 12-point margin at the conclusion of the tilt.

The first quarter was hotly contested, with Oklahoma City showing more defensive intensity than they often do out of the gate. The Thunder were trapping the Celtics every time that a player would catch the ball on the wings. This whittled away the shot clock and forced the Celtics to hoist up a series of long, contested two-point shots. Not exactly a recipe for a victory, especially for a team that pulls down the second-to-last offensive rebounds in the entire NBA at just 8.4 per game entering play on Sunday.

The Thunder’s strong trapping defense spurred a 10-0 run midway through the frame, and Oklahoma City held a 21-16 lead when Kevin Durant went to the bench with his second personal foul at the 3:30 mark. Boston switched to a 2-3 zone defense, and with both Durant and Russell Westbrook on the bench, the Thunder struggled to initiate any efficient offense. Instead of running Kevin Martin (the last remaining viable offensive option for OKC) off a series of screens, the Thunder did a lot of standing around and Martin did a lot of wild shooting, to no avail.

Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The home team still managed to take a 25-22 lead into the second quarter, thanks in part to Boston’s 9 first quarter turnovers. The Thunder were ahead 30-26 when Durant reappeared around the 9:45 mark. They quickly embarked on a 10-0 run, and took a 48-37 lead before surrendering some quick buckets from Boston and taking a 50-45 lead into halftime.

After Durant got himself into some early foul trouble, it forced the Oklahoma City second unit to play without either he or Westbrook on the floor and led to a sputtering Thunder offense. That was not the case in the second half, and coach Scott Brooks was able to play Durant and Martin in tandem, as he prefers to do. Scoring in the third quarter and into the fourth came much easier for the home team, and the Thunder withstood strong play from Avery Bradley and maintained a 68-65 lead at the end of the frame.

The Thunder put the game away with a quick run to start the final period, with both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett simply unable to convert on their many shot attempts. Garnett in particular endured an 0 for 10 stretch throughout the middle portion of the game before he managed a tip-in midway through the fourth quarter. With 3:30 remaining in the game, the Thunder held onto a 85-73 lead, and the Celtics had shot just 2 of 18 from the field at that point. Jason Terry hit a couple of quick corner three-pointers to pull Boston within eight points with two minutes left.

With 1:15 on the clock, the Celtics ran a play for Terry coming off of a back screen from Garnett, designed to catch a skip pass from Pierce in the left corner. Thabo Sefolosha trailed Terry perfectly, fighting through Garnett’s screen (no easy task, to be sure) and forcing Pierce’s pass to put Terry in a non-shooting position. After rotating the ball a couple of time, Jeff Green hoisted up a long shot that missed, and the game was effectively over, with the Thunder eventually winning by the final score of 91-79.

A few thoughts….

– Kendrick Perkins surprised me with a couple of very nice passes from high on the wing after setting screens, for Durant in the first half and Westbrook late in the game. His defense was very good against the Celtics as well, and he helped hold Garnett and Brandon Bass to a total of just 16 points on a combined 8 of 23 shooting from the field.

– Westbrook had a very quiet afternoon, shooting the ball just 11 times and recording a final line of 15 points and just 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 rebound, 1 block, and 3 turnovers in 34 minutes. Avery Bradley did a solid job defending him and finished with 12 points (5 of 10 shooting), 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and just 1 turnover in 35 minutes.

– The Celtics need to be more consistent in running their offensive sets throughout the game. While Paul Pierce is absolutely still effective and a fantastic player, the frequent isolations have simply served to drain his offensive efficiency and make the Celtics that much more predictable on offense. Obviously, they need to find a way to create points with Rajon Rondo missing from the lineup, but the Thunder found a way to force the Celtics’ offense to grind to a halt, and it should not be difficult for other teams to do the same thing come playoff time.

Tags: Boston Celtics Kevin Durant Kevin Garnett Oklahoma City Thunder Paul Pierce Russell Westbrook

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