By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics and Thunder both have new-look rosters and plenty of offensive firepower. They’ll meet for the first time this season in a highly anticipated Friday night battle in Oklahoma City.
At first glance, it would seem that both teams are destined to easily reach triple digits — by the third quarter. Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving will be flirting with 40-point evenings as they go toe-to-toe on national television. Beastbrook’s sidekicks Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and Uncle Drew’s young cohorts in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum should all have an easy time finding the cup. It’ll be a Bugs Bunny layup line for 48 minutes, right?
That’s the way it should be when you look at the rosters, but not so fast. Friday night’s tilt may actually be one of the young season’s best defensive battles.
In this offense-centric NBA, where the Warriors drop 120+ points per game and all but five teams average in the 100’s, both the Celtics and Thunder are surprisingly among the best defensive teams in the league. Yes, you read that correctly. A team with Irving and another with Anthony, neither of whom have ever been known for their eagerness to play a lick of defense, are atop the league in defense.
While Irving has been shockingly swell on the defensive end, second in the league with 2.63 steals per game, and Melo has a respectable defensive rating for the first time in his career, it’s what the rest of their respective teams have been doing that is really turning heads. Of the league’s 20 best players in defensive rating, six are Celtics and four are Thunder. It’s a grand testament to both Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan.
As they head into Friday night’s game, the Celtics are allowing just 93.8 points per game and 95.1 points per 100 possessions. Both rank first in the NBA. The Thunder come in at third at 93.8 points per game, and second behind Boston at 95.9 points per 100 possessions.
That’s not to say each team’s stars won’t score their points on Friday, they’ll just have a tougher time doing so. Anthony is enjoying a career resurgence now that he’s escaped the bowels of New York, leading the way for OKC at 22.9 points per game while hitting 46 percent of his shots. Westbrook and George are not far behind at 19.6 points per game, and even big man Steven Adams is muscling his way to a career-high 14.4 points per game. The Thunder average 107 points per contest, and are a cut above everyone else with a plus-10.9 differential.
Just below them in that department sit the Celtics at plus-9.2.
It’s early in the season and this could all mean nothing in the next few months, or even in the next few hours when the two teams tip off. They both may find themselves in an offensive mood on Friday, and with potent scorers on each side, the scoreboard may find itself lighting up like a Christmas tree. That would be acceptable these days, where Christmas prep apparently begins in early November anyways.
Either way, their matchup will be a great test for both teams no matter which side of the floor they do their damage on; a tough road opponent for a Celtics team that has won six straight and a solid foe for a Thunder squad looking to make a name for themselves in a crowded Western Conference. Given their offseason moves, it’s no surprise that both are vying for NBA supremacy in the early part of the season.
What’s surprising is the way both teams have gotten there. But in an age when most NBA teams are solely focused on putting the ball in the basket, it’s refreshing to see a pair of teams flipping that script.