Marcus Smart joins the Early Edition to talk about Brad Stevens, how the season has gone so far and more.
BOSTON – With the NBA playoffs looming, this is a tricky time of year for most of the league’s playoff-bound teams.
Both players and coaches want to head into the postseason well-rested.
But they also want to be in a good playing rhythm.
Injuries have forced the Boston Celtics to sit some players who are likely to be able to play (and well-rested) when the playoffs.
And tonight’s foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are in a similar situation as well.
“It's something you're walking a tightrope on all the time, where a guy is really rested but you've taken him out of rhythm,” said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. “The biggest thing is, there's gotta be communication between the players and the medical staff, coaches, of where guys are, what they need.
Donovan added, “I think rest this time of year would help any player, but there's a balance between maybe getting too much rest and maybe getting out of rhythm. The players are always walking that line during the course of the year, because you kind of get into a rhythm of playing every other day, you get into that, and then there's a back to back here or there, and you get three games in four nights, but yeah. You try to best as you can with your players, help them balance that the best they can.”
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook can see how some players might need to strike a balance between getting enough rest late in the season while maintaining a good playing rhythm.
So, I asked him which is his preference?
“I prefer to play,” he said. “Rhythm and all that (expletive), it’s in your mind.”
For Westbrook, maybe so.
But it is very real to a number of players in the NBA, among them being his teammate and fellow All-Star Paul George.
“If you know why you’re in the gym and the work you’re getting, you lock in,” George said. “You prepare, get your work done. And you get off your legs, get off our feet and get your rest. It’s easy to balance the two when you know what exactly you’re doing and you know exactly what you need to do.”
Boston has worked to strike that balance with Kyrie Irving all season.
That’s why the five-time All-Star is averaging 24.4 points per game which is 11th in the league. However, he’s doing it in 32.2 minutes which ranks 55th in the league in minutes played per game.
Lately, Irving has gotten more time off than he would like as he deals with a sore left knee that has kept him sidelined for the Celtics’ last three games.
It doesn’t appear to be something that will limit him now.
However, having him sit out games now increases the likelihood that he’ll be ready to roll at or near full strength, when the playoffs arrive.
Boston is also playing without Jaylen Brown who suffered a concussion when he fell on his back following a dunk at Houston on March 3. He is expected to return at some point between now and the end of the regular season which could be a blessing in disguise for the 6-foot-7 Brown who will be called upon to not only remain Boston’s next-best scoring option to Kyrie Irving, but also defend at a high level.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that they have given thought to how to find that happy medium between resting guys while ensuring as best they can, that players will be refreshed for the playoffs.
“We haven’t been in that situation very often, where we choose to do rest except for that stretch in December when we rested Al (Horford),” Stevens said. “But everything else has kind of happened organically with guys being dinged up or whatever the case may be. I think that’s … we’ll probably be in a situation where we will continue to have those discussions.”
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Oklahoma City All-Star Paul George knows the Boston Celtics team he and his Thunder teammates will face tomorrow night, won’t be at full strength.
But he’s wise enough to know if you focus too much on an opponent’s key losses to their roster, that same team can potentially hand you a loss which is the last thing the Thunder need right now in what’s shaping up to be a tightly contested Western Conference playoff race.
Currently fourth in the standings, only four games separate teams No. 3-8. Only Houston (56-14) and Golden State (53-17) have secured a postseason berth.
Which means the Celtics won’t catch Oklahoma City sleeping on them heading into tomorrow night’s game.
“We are going to address it the same way regardless of who's in there,” George said. “We got to pick these games up. We lost the game on our floor earlier this season.”
But that was early in the season when the Thunder were still trying to figure out how its newly formed core of Russell Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony, could mesh.
Oklahoma City has gotten stronger as the season progressed, and are one of the hottest teams around with six straight wins, the most recent being a 132-125 victory at Eastern Conference-leading Toronto.
Meanwhile, Boston (47-23) has lost its last two games and three of four so from a momentum standpoint, the Thunder have every reason to feel as though they’ll emerge victorious tomorrow night.
And they also have added motivation from their Nov. 3 matchup with the Celtics in Oklahoma City that ended with a 101-94 win for Boston.
Westbrook had 19 points and 11 assists in that game but shot 7-for-20 from the field. Carmelo Anthony had 14 points but did so on a woeful 3-for-17 shooting. And then there was George’s 25 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with 10 rebounds.
“We have to show who we are,” George said.
Who they are, is a team that’s fighting for home court in at least the first round of the playoffs where they are currently fourth in the West.
And their success in the last six games has been fueled by strong play at both ends of the floor.
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In that stretch, Oklahoma City is averaging 116.2 points which ranks second in the NBA during that span. Defensively, they are allowing 104.5 points which is the 10th-fewest allowed in the last six games.
“Just making the right plays, offensively and defensively” is how Westbrook described the team’s recent run of success.
And the Thunder have every intention of keeping it going against a beat-up Celtics squad that they know they can’t take lightly.
“Again, we are playing really well,” George said. “A step back if we lose no matter who's in or who's out would hurt us.”