Previous Meeting(s): None this year
Backstory: To put it mildly, the last few games have been quite the roller-coaster ride. Oklahoma City went on a nine-game winning streak, punctuated by a dominating win against the Timberwolves, during which Russell Westbrook went off to register a triple double (22 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds) for the night. The team was flying high and looking great ... and then our close-game luck ran out (or came back to Earth perhaps). The Suns came into town and Jason Richardson secured a sloppy endgame (from our side of things) against us for a 104-102 Thunder loss. The next game against the Spurs saw KD get blocked on a dunk attempt by Ginobili(!) and the team finding itself thoroughly outplayed in a 95-87 loss to the Spurs. And then on Friday, OKC seemingly got back to business and put away the less-talented and superiorly-sloppy T-Wolves. Today? The Raptors are set to face off against the Thunder in their first meeting of the season, with Chris Bosh still nursing an ankle injury.
The Raptors have had a similar path as of late. Toronto moved steadily up the standings over the past month, until recent losses to Portland and Cleveland. However, as seen by their play during the OT loss to the Cavs, the Raptors are a team that can definitely win against anyone, provided they don't cough up turnovers (16 during that game against Portland), defend better, and ... in short play sufficient, if not superior, basketball. Similar to past years, the Raptors have shown an ability to attack the interior of bottom-rung teams by establishing a post game and by crashing the offensive glass. Their success against better teams in the NBA is questionable, as just in the past week they were demolished on the boards when facing off against upper tier teams. It'll be interesting to see if they'll attempt to muscle inside against Krstic and/or try to put Ibaka and company into foul trouble early by a concerted effort to establish their post game. On the other end, it'll be critical for them to try to stop us from doing the same. This is a game that has a similar inpetus for both teams -- it's another gauge as to how each team can come back from a series of losses.
Below: Matchups, Prediction
Projected starters: (sourced from NewsOK.com)
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs. Jarrett Jack
Westbrook is playing out of this world. While he hasn't been perfect he's been very good (and consistently so), putting up a line of 19.3 points, 10 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals in the past 10 games. That said, don't hand the ball to him if he's going to try for a buzzer beating 3-pointer. Please, just don't. Jarrett Jack? He's similarly been absolutely on a tear as of late, averaging 20.8 points, 7.3 assists, and 3.5 rebounds. Defensively, Westbrook has the edge, as Jack has continued to do less than a stellar job on this end. That said, I'd expect plenty of points and assists from both.
Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs. DeMar DeRozan
The big question that's been on everyone's mind is: "What's wrong with DeMar DeRozan?" He's played substantial minutes, yet scored just eight points over his last three games. Prior to that he was starting to find his stroke, so this is a happy new development for us. DeRozan isn't a significant perimeter threat, at least from three-point range. Needless to say, the Thunder are going to be looking to smother him every time he drives inside. He'll likely be pushed to settle for jumpshots or forced to pass. On the flip side, Thabo has the most trouble facing off against athletic, driving guards so this could be a more competitive matchup than I'm giving it credit for. And it's not like he's in the game as a shut-down defender, because he's not. Defensively, DeRozan can't stop much of anything, so look for Harden to come in off the bench and light him up in limited minutes.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. Hedo Turkoglu
KD is going to do what he always does, and Hedo isn't going to slow him down one bit. Hedo has been playing well as of late, but on the season he hasn't done nearly as much as the Raptors probably had hoped when they snagged him. Hedo does settle for perimeter shots far too frequently however -- twice as terrible for them right now as, without Bosh, there is far too much pressure on Bargnani to pull in all the rebounds. The loss to the Cavs, where Hedo should have put it on the floor and driven in for the high-percentage shot rather than jack it up illustrates this perfectly. I don't expect KD to shut Hedo down, but look for OKC's overall perimeter team defense to put pressure on him all night long.
Power Forward: Jeff Green vs. Andrea Bargnani
Generally speaking, Green has trouble with tall (particularly center-sized) PF matchups. However, this is not one of those matchups to fear. If you thought Jeff did a good job against Dirk a few games back, tune in to see what he does against Bargnani. Bargnani is probably going to get some points, particularly shooting with a deft touch from outside, but he'll lose out on the rebounding battle on both sides of the floor and struggle to stop Green from scoring at will.
Center: Nenad Krstic vs. Rasho Nesterovic
This is going to be an interesting matchup, as Nesterovic is basically a player in the same mold as Krstic. He's been playing in lieu of Bosh, and has done a pretty decent job in the interim -- but due to his style of play, Krstic is likely going to be able to keep up with him on both ends of the floor. Look for a very similar result from both players.
Bench: Antoine Wright and Jose Calderon are the two notable players off the bench, the rest aren't likely to see many minutes as nobody else on that bench is an offensive (or defensive) threat. If you're looking to try to win a game (or at least not lose it) you don't want to be running out Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans for any sort of substantial minutes. Anyhow ... back to Calderon. Sadly, he's is in the midst of a slump. The man of automatic free-throw fame is now struggling with his shot. Go figure. If Calderon continues to struggle, they'll be basically limited to Wright and a bunch of fringe-roleplayers. OKC will counter with Harden, Maynor, Ibaka, Collison ... you get the point. I'd say that the bench is going to be a huge win for us.
Coaching and Intangibles:
Pretty much even here, but we're at home so advantage us. Both teams are hungry for a win against solid competition, after some head-scratching losses earlier in the week.
Look for the Thunder to go back to the basics -- defensive intensity and offensive balance. With their minds back on winning and the Raptors in Loud City, I'll go with the Thunder to roll over the Bosh-less Raptors.
Prediction: Oklahoma City 105, Toronto 93
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Oklahoma City Thunder