Celtics-Thunder preview: C's must play 'smart' defense

947701.jpg

Celtics-Thunder preview: C's must play 'smart' defense

BOSTON There appears to be a one-size-fits-all solution to the Boston Celtics' biggest problem right now, which is figuring out how to squeeze a few more wins under their belt.

The numbers don't lie.

Holding opponents to less than a 100 points is as close as there is to a guaranteed C's win.

Boston comes into tonight's game against Oklahoma City as a .500 team with a record of 6-6.

But in games in which their opponent has scored less than 100 points, the Celtics are an impressive 6-1.

That has a nice ring to it, huh?

It sounds pretty easy to do as well.

But when it comes to the Boston Celtics this season, nothing is nearly as simple or easy to come by as it might appear to be.

Boston has lost three of its last four games, giving up triple digit points in each defeat.

And for all the talent Danny Ainge assembled this summer, this group for whatever reasons is just not clicking defensively.

"We pride ourselves on defense," said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. "And we're just not getting it done."

The C's are having the kind of defensive breakdowns and miscommunications that you seldom see from a Doc Rivers-coached team, even this early in the season.

Rivers is doing his best to put on a brave face and not let the defensive problems sour his mood too much, or come across as though it's something he's extremely worried about.

He reiterates that the issue isn't so much effort as much as it is execution.

"We've got to do our coverages better; bottom line," Rivers said. "(Talk about playing) harder and all that, that sounds great. That's what everyone says when you lose; 'you've got to play harder.' Well, we've got to play smarter, we have to know our coverages better, and when that happens everybody is on the same page and it allows our rotations to be freer, it allows our bigs to get back to the paint."

Keeping a scoring lid of sorts on Oklahoma City - the league's No. 2 scoring club averaging 103 points per game - will be important in Boston's quest to get back on a winning track. Here are a few other keys to victory for the C's.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The Thunder are used to jumping on teams and not looking back. They average 26.3 points scored in the first quarter this season which is the fifth-highest scoring average in the league, while limiting opponents to just 21.8 points.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rajon Rondo vs. Russell Westbrook: Both are among the NBA's best point guards, while getting the job done in their own unique but highly effective way. Rondo and the C's are doing their best to take some of the attention off his double-digit assists streak which is a good thing considering the C's are a .500 club and all the talk should be more about winning than ways in which Rondo can continue to rack up 10 or more assists every night.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Paul Pierce needs to play better in every sense of the word if the C's are to have any shot against the Thunder. Scoring will be important, but his defense against Kevin Durant and rebounding might be even more valuable. The Celtics are coming off a loss to San Antonio in which Pierce scored 19 points while not hauling in a single rebound. It was only the sixth time in his career he scored 15 or more points without a single rebound to his name.

STAT TO TRACK: Keeping the Thunder off the free throw line will be one of the more difficult challenges for the Celtics. Oklahoma City shoots an NBA-best 84.4 percent from the line, and have shot 80 percent or better from the line in each of the last three seasons. Even more impressive is they also lead the NBA in free throws made per game (23.4) and rank second in attempts (27.8).

Celtics-Wizards preview: Making of a matchup

Celtics-Wizards preview: Making of a matchup

BOSTON -- While it’s debatable whether the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards are rivals, there’s no question there has been a heightened level of animosity towards one another when they play.

When these two met on Jan. 11, the Celtics came away with a 117-108 win.

But the game itself featured plenty of back-and-forth trash talk, finger-pointing, cries of dirty play and NBA fines.

IN FACT . . . Washington plans to bury Boston

“It’ll be a physical game,” said Jae Crowder who was hit with a five-figure fine for his role in a post-game incident involving Washington’s John Wall. “We have to answer the bell; we’ll be ready.”

Crowder knows he and his teammates must balance being the more physical team, with not losing their cool because if tonight’s game is anything like previous ones, there will be trash talk … lots of trash talk.

“They talk a little bit more than other teams,” said Crowder who added that was a factor in the incident him and Wall which cost them $25,000 and $15,000, respectively.

Crowder said a flagrant-foul committed by Washington’s Bradley Beal against Marcus Smart was what really cranked the level of animosity that was already at a high level.

But Beal probably hasn’t fully put behind him an incident last season in which Smart broke his nose and put him in the league’s concussion protocol program on a Smart drive to the basket.

As far as the hard foul that Beal delivered to him earlier this month, Smart said, “you take exception to every hard foul.”

Smart added, “It’s the game of basketball. You play with your emotions and intensity and everything like that. It comes with the game.”

While Crowder understands the Celtics have to play a physical brand of basketball, he’s not looking to do anything that might result in him having to cut another $25,000 check which was the amount of his fine from the Jan. 11 game against the Wizards.

“I’m looking at it as another game we have to win,” Crowder said. “I’m not looking at it as a rivalry or anything like that. I’m not coming in talking; they might.”

For the Wizards, winners in four of their five games since losing to Boston, a major key to their success lies in the play of their backcourt.

John Wall and Bradley Beal are the latest high-scoring backcourt tandem that the Celtics have to be worried about.

And making matters worse for Boston, the Celtics will have to try and make due without Avery Bradley who is still dealing with a right Achilles injury.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said the 6-foot-2 Bradley was not going to be with the team in Washington and would most likely be out all this week.

That means Boston will lean heavily on Smart to not only help the offense run relatively smooth, but also provide some much-needed defense to help limit Wall and Beal who collectively rank among the higher-scoring starting backcourts in the NBA.

“We have to slow them down; by any means we have to slow them down,” Thomas said. “We know they go as far as those two take them. It’s going to be a tough game. They have a lot of momentum at home. It’ll be a tough game for us. But we’re ready for the opportunity.”

Wall and Beal are just the latest in a string of high-scoring backcourts that the Celtics have had to contend with recently.

In Saturday’s 127-123 overtime home loss to Portland, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard combined to score 63 points on 20-for-42 shooting from the field.

“This stretch of backcourts is exceptionally difficult,” Stevens said. “They (Wall and Beal) both should be and certainly are in the discussion for the all-star team. It’s a real difficult challenge. Our guys are going to have to be really good on both ends of the floor.”

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.