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Westbrook takes the lead as Thunder engage 76ers

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Life will be tough without KD, but Russ is ready.

What is it with Russ? Could it be his de la clothes or is it just his de la soul?
What is it with Russ? Could it be his de la clothes or is it just his de la soul?
William Bennett Berry

The Oklahoma City Thunder will play their first game of the 2015-16 season without Kevin Durant this evening. Durant is out with a sprained calf, and won't be back for at least a week. Taking Durant's place will be Kyle Singler, who is listed as the Thunder's "probable" starter for tonight's game against the 76ers. Coach Donovan hasn't been willing to commit to Singler yet though, admitting that Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow were also replacement options. Given Morrow's lack of use over the past four games, his inclusion is a bit of a surprise.

The Sixers, meanwhile, will be getting a player returning from injury. Nerlens Noel, who has missed two games with wrist soreness, will start at power forward. Noel's presence will be a huge boon for Philadelphia's interior defense. If you need evidence of how important Noel is to Philadelphia, look at his defensive box plus/minus score. Noel is one of only two Sixers to be in the positive in that category. Furthermore, Noel leads the team with 1.8 blocks per game. As a team, Philadelphia blocks the second most shots per game in the NBA.

Nevertheless, it will be extremely difficult for the 76ers to win this basketball game. Don't get me wrong, I'm not taking the easy way out and just labeling the Sixers as "bad". I mean, this Sixer team has taken LeBron's Cavs to crunch time twice, and almost beat a respectable Bucks squad. But despite the Sixers' scrapping, they haven't been able to close a game strong this season. Part of that is age. Everyone on Philadelphia's active roster is 24 years old or younger.

But you also have to consider Philadelphia's terrible perimeter defense. The 76ers are starting T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas in their backcourt. Both McConnell and Stauskas are skill-based offensive players that lack athleticism and physical advantages. Opposing teams (Orlando, Milwaukee) have exploited this down the stretch of games. Accordingly, Philadelphia allows opponents to score 37.8% of their threes, good for fourth worst in the NBA.

Donovan's hint at including lots of Singler and Morrow tonight makes sense. Both Singler and Morrow have excellent career averages from three. Also, Philadelphia doesn't have any really physical guards that can punish Singler or Morrow on defense.

In terms of the Thunder's remaining stars, both Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will have something to prove. Westbrook will be looked to as the unquestioned leader of the team, and will likely take over a few more offensive possessions. If Russ doesn't have a BIG night, there's something wrong. Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka's range will be key in keeping Nerlens Noel's help defense away from the paint.

Steven Adams will likely have the toughest defensive assignment tonight, as he guards rookie of the year candidate Jahlil Okafor. The numbers for Okafor are insane. 21 Points a game, 51% from the field, 7 rebounds, and a block a game. Also, check this: Okafor has shot below 40% in a game just twice this season, against Rudy Gobert and Pau Gasol. Adams will have to do follow Okafor's footwork and remember not to fall for easy fakes.

What is there to know about the rest of who Philadelphia will play tonight? Well, here they all are in a nutshell. Jerami Grant is a decent defender, specializing in shot blocking. T.J. McConnell passes the ball a lot. Nik Stauskas shoots the ball a lot. JaKarr Sampson dunks pretty well, and constantly drives to the rim. Isaiah Canaan is like a human pinball. Hollis Thompson is a wing shooter. Phil Pressey is a crafty, creative combo guard that works well in the pick and roll and transition. Christian Wood is a lengthy, athletic project of a big man.

Really, this game is going to come down to the Thunder's ability to overcome a team of extreme specialists. The Thunder will also have to deal with Philadelphia's motivation heading into this game, since the Sixers have lost 8 straight. Still, both of those things can be easily conquered tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 131, Philadelphia 76ers 112.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 9
(Lost 8)

(Won 2)
November 13th, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Philadelphia
Injury Report: Nerlens Noel (Probable), Richaun Holmes (Questionable), Kevin Durant, Robert Covington, Carl Landry, Joel Embiid (Out), Kendall Marshall, Tony Wroten (D-League)
Last Season's Matchups: Dec 6 (W 103-91), Mar 4 (W 123-118)
Probable Starters
T.J. McConnell PG Russell Westbrook
Nik Stauskas SG Andre Roberson
Jerami Grant SF Kyle Singler
Nerlens Noel PF Serge Ibaka
Jahlil Okafor C Steven Adams