The defending champs of the Western Conference pose threats to all of the other 29 teams in the league. They are the third favored team to win the title, behind the Heat and Lakers, at 5/1 odds from Vegas. Comparatively, the Celtics are given the sixth best shot at 20/1, ranking behind the Derrick Rose-less Bulls (12/1) and the San Antonio Spurs (18/1).
Is this assessment fair for a team that took the Heat further than any other in the 2012 Playoffs, pushing seven games in a series they led 3-2 after five games? Are not the Celtics a bigger threat to the three juggernauts expected to compete for a title?
It starts off with defense, because the C’s have the defensive talent to give the high powered Thunder some problems. Let’s take a look at how the matchup breaks down on paper:
Rajon Rondo / Dionte Christmas vs. Russell Westbrook / Eric Maynor
This is what many will consider to be the premier matchup on the court, notwithstanding the fact that the Thunder’s team leader is Kevin Durant and the C’s are led (at least in scoring) by Paul Pierce.
Rajon Rondo is a jumpshot away from being the best point guard in the league and Westbrook is option 1B on a team that includes the league’s leading scorer. Rondo’s defense is about as good as any other point guard’s in the league, though the 6’3″ Westbrook has both size and strength advantages against the lanky Rondo. Rondo’s wingspan should compensate for his shortcomings in height, though, as he’ll be able to use his quickness and long arms to prevent Westbrook from getting too creative with the ball on the dribble.
But can Westbrook slow Rondo? He’s a good defender, but Rondo is able to create against even the best defenders, and the Thunder are going to have to get good help side defense from Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden on the perimeter, and they’re going to have to have Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins on point with their weak side rotations. But even if they are, it’s going to leave Kevin Garnett and the other Celtics bigs open around the hole for easy scores.
Eric Maynor has an advantage over unheralded rookie Dionte Christmas, but maybe not as much as NBA pundits might think. Either way, Rondo and Westbrook will be seeing the lion’s share of the minutes, and only foul trouble will change that.
Both starting point guards present a lot of problems for one another, and both are great defenders. It’s hard to declare an advantage for either side in this matchup…
Courtney Lee / Avery Bradley / Jason Terry vs. Thabo Sefolosha / James Harden
At first, anyone that examines this would notice James Harden as the only max-contract level type player of these five guys and denote a heavy advantage to the Thunder at the shooting guard position. Such people would be doing so at their own peril, ignoring the depth advantage the C’s have at this position.
It is the Celtics depth that will enable them to keep throwing fresh bodies at the Thunder and while the Thunder have a premier defender in Thabo Sefolosha, and a very good one in James Harden, the C’s have both Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley, who are excellent defenders in their own right, and Jason Terry is underrated in that aspect of his game, as well.
Harden won the 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year award and is a future All-Star, but those who have watched Avery Bradley think he may have the makings of an All-Star too, eventually, and those who saw Courtney Lee during his 2009 Playoffs run with the Magic wondered if the Western Kentucky product might not be an All-Star in his own right in time. That hasn’t happened yet for Lee, but he’ll receive the opportunity to start until Bradley gets back from injury. Terry is also a former sixth man of the year, and one of the best sixth men in NBA history.
What I’m getting at here is that the C’s depth makes up for any short comings in terms of Harden being the best player, and while Harden may be capable of scoring 20+ on any given night (he averaged 16.8 per game last year), I don’t think he does it with regularity against this Boston backcourt.
Advantage: Thunder, by a hair
Paul Pierce / Jeff Green / Kris Joseph vs. Kevin Durant / Perry Jones III / DeAndre Liggins
Well, now we get to a position that it’s hard to say the Thunder don’t have a huge edge at. Kevin Durant has led the league in scoring three straight seasons now, and at the ripe age of only 23 (he turns 24 in a week), he’s poised to become one of the best scoring forwards ever, if not the very best. That’s what Durant does: score, score, and score some more; and though Paul Pierce is capable of having big nights too, he’s going to have his work cut out for him on both ends of the court.
That’s where Jeff Green will come in handy. A former teammate of Durant’s, Green knows his game, and is a very good perimeter defender. I’m not going to suggest Green will come out and shut Durant down, but he does know his game and should be able to do a better job on him than the aged Pierce. That will go a long way for the Celtics.
Perry Jones III could make a big impact right away, but he might not get the minutes playing behind Durant. DeAndre Liggins and Kris Joseph are unlikely to see a lot of minutes for the Thunder and Celtics, respectively, but both could be long term impacts down the road. Joseph showed at Syracuse he has what it takes to be a big time scorer, and Liggins toiled in obscurity in Orlando but is said to be an excellent defender.
All those considerations aside, it is Green that will be counted upon heavily by the Celtics in a potential matchup against his former team, and Durant is a beast—no two ways about it. I think the C’s have the defensive talent to keep Durant from scoring career high numbers, but I can’t say much more than that and the 6’11” forward is going to use his length to get off just about whatever shot he wants, as he does against most teams.
Brandon Bass / Jared Sullinger / Chris Wilcox vs. Serge Ibaka / Nick Collison
Serge Ibaka didn’t win the Defensive player of the year, but he did make the All Defensive first team. His shot blocking ability makes him a constant worry for players taking it to the basket, and his offensive game is pretty solid and underrated, as he can bang down the mid-range jumper and finish strong at the hole.
For all Brandon Bass is, he’s not an All NBA First-anything level, and though he is a good shooter in his own right, he’s going to have to be at his very best to keep Ibaka away from the basket, where he can change and block the shots of Rondo and the C’s other players penetrating to the hoop. Bass had the playoff run of his life and earned himself a nice contract again, but it’s match ups like these that determine whether or not he’ll have been worth the money GM Danny Ainge gave him.
Backing up Ibaka and Bass, Jared Sullinger and Nick Collison both have their value as players. Sullinger, as I continually point out, has top-five draft talent, as he was once projected to go there, and Collison, for all he is as a player and defender, could potentially have a lot of problems with Sullinger. The Ohio State product is crafty around the hole and will cause a lot of guys to get into foul trouble, so the Celtics may tend to play him more minutes in an attempt to get Ibaka to pick up some silly reaches and find his way to the bench.
With the signing of Darko Milicic, it’s unlikely Wilcox sees as many minutes, as Kevin Garnett may now be able to play more at his natural position of power forward. In fact, a case could be made that Milicic starts and it moves Garnett back to power forward. That would strengthen the Celtics chances against a team like the Thunder, but it remains to be seen how Doc Rivers utilizes Milicic in the rotation, or if he decides to start him.
Nonetheless, this matchup revolves around the sharp defense of Ibaka and the need for Bass to play the best ball of his life.
Kevin Garnett / Darko Milicic / Fab Melo / Jason Collins vs. Kendrick Perkins / Cole Aldrich / Daniel Orton
It could very be, as I mentioned, that Darko Milicic ends up starting at center and it shifts Garnett back to power forward, but for right now we’re going to go with what we know, and deem Garnett the starter.
Garnett will fare well against his former teammate Kendrick Perkins. Perkins is a bigger body and capable of banging with the biggest of them, but Garnett’s finesse and skill set will pose problems for a traditional center like Perkins, as it will for a lot of traditional centers. Garnett has the length to make up for lacking bulk, and Perkins isn’t much of a scorer, anyway.
For as good a defender as Perkins is, I think Garnett gives him a lot of problems and the 36 year old 14-time NBA All-Star will take Perk out on the perimeter and make him work. It’s going to be unorthodox if Rivers sticks with Garnett at center when he has a legitimate option in Milicic, but there is something to be said for getting your five best players out on the court at the start of a game, and starting Bass at power forward and keeping Garnett at center does that. Either way, Garnett has the talent and skill that it doesn’t matter if he plays out of position, and especially not against a guy like Perkins whose offensive talent is lacking.
Doc Rivers vs. Scott Brooks
Scott Brooks has proven himself to be a great former point guard/head coach just like Rivers. Brooks is great at stimulating the Thunder to be a premier scoring team, but he’s an underrated defensive coach, as well. The thing is, he’s just not the level of defensive coach that Rivers is, and the only reason he may appear to be better with offensive schemes is because he has such a talented squad.
I have to go with Rivers here by a bit simply because I’ve seen Rivers do it with less talent than Brooks. The Orlando squad that Doc coached to a .500 record should have been the worst team in the lottery. Until Brooks shows he can do such things with a squad that isn’t as stacked as the Thunder, I have to go with the proven commodity in Rivers.
So, when it comes down to looking at the simple advantages, the Thunder have an advantage at every position except center and point guard, the latter of which I deemed to be evenly matched.
They are the favored team by Vegas for a reason. The Thunder have a more talented team, but sometimes talent is not the only factor to take into account when determining who would win a seven game series. After all, the Celtics did take the Heat further than the Thunder, though Chris Bosh was injured for the first five games of the series, while he played the entire NBA Finals. That said, the Celtics were missing Avery Bradley, as well, and that can’t be underestimated either.
When it comes down to it, it’s really going to be a matter of what happens at the point guard and small forward spots. I expect Westbrook and Rondo to kind of cancel one another out, though Rondo can make a difference in ways that Westbrook can’t. He can facilitate better. Jeff Green will have his hands full with Durant, and Paul Pierce may see his minutes reduced due to that matchup (and age). I have to give the Thunder their credit here.
Series Prediction: Thunder in 7.