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Scorching Thunder must outmaneuver versatile Hawks

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Guarding the three point line will be paramount.

Feel the tension!
Feel the tension!
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After an extremely strong 7-1 start to the season, the Atlanta Hawks have gone a mediocre 4-7. That evens out to an 11-8 record at the current date, putting Atlanta smack in the middle of the East pack. Average a disappointing place to be, given that the Hawks were the first seed in the East this time last year.

What's given the Hawks difficulty?

The loss of DeMarre Carroll during the off-season has to be the biggest reason. Carroll was Atlanta's second best three point shooter, and Atlanta's fifth best scorer overall. Accordingly, when you compare this year's Hawks team to last year's Hawks team, this year's team is worse at shooting and defending the three. Specifically, the 14-15 Hawks shot 38% from three and allowed 34% from three. The 15-16 Hawks, on the other hand, shoot 35% from three and allow 37% from three. It's a small difference, but it definitely accounts for Carroll's absence.

The arrival of former Spur Tiago Splitter was supposed to help boost Atlanta's cause. Unfortunately, Splitter has missed five games so far this season. Other injuries have hurt Atlanta as well. Bazemore's missed five, Sefolosha's missed four, Teague's missed three, and Korver's missed two. With Splitter's numbers not wowing anyone, it's been up to Atlanta's wings to shoulder more of the load. It's hard to pin one wing over the other though, as virtually all of them are running very similar statlines to what they had last season.

What OKC must do to win

Regardless of how Atlanta is doing, we know what to expect from Atlanta. The Hawks are a versatile team that likes to take advantage of mismatches and makes smart plays on offense. Defensively, the Hawks like to force turnovers and avoid fouling. The flip side is that the Hawks don't rebound very well on either end of the floor, and don't have elite shot defense.

If the Thunder want to win, they'll have to be sure to secure the ball on offense and keep track of the three point line on defense. These have been problem areas for the Thunder throughout the season. 17 turnovers a game is good for fourth worst in the NBA, and the Thunder must cut down on that moving forward. Furthermore, OKC is allowing opposing teams to shoot 36% from three, good for 10th worst in the league. Thus, tonight's should be a good test for the Thunder in both of those categories. To be sure, OKC has at least improved their three point defense as of late, holding their opponents to less than 30% in each of their last three games.

Last season, the Hawks were able to get a serious advantage on the Thunder by running a pick and pop game with Horford and Milsap. I'd say the same thing could happen tonight, given how effective Brooklyn's pick and pop game was with Lopez and Bargnani last Wednesday. Donovan was eventually able to counter with a small lineup, and I think that's what he'll need to take down Atlanta in the clutch. I'd be highly surprised if Kanter or Adams played in the last 6 minutes of a competitive game tonight.

How the Thunder are doing

In terms of individual performance, the Thunder have gotten a titanic boost from Kevin Durant since his return from a minor hamstring injury on November 23rd. In the three games since his return, Durant is averaging 30 PPG on 58% shooting. Westbrook has seen a decline in shots since KD's return, but still handles the ball and racks up huge numbers of assists. Last Friday's game against the Pistons was probably Westbrook's worst this season, as he fouled out, turned the ball over 11 times, and shot just 36% from the floor. Given the emotional nature of that game and the rarity of bad performances out of Westbrook, I'm willing to give it a pass.

The Thunder's big counterpart pieces have been doing well for themselves. Serge Ibaka seems to have recovered his shooting abilities alongside KD's return to the team, hitting 59% from the field in the last three games. Enes Kanter has been the most consistent scorer off the bench, and has been a lot more tenacious on defense as of late. Even Dion Waiters isn't having trouble finding his groove, posting several double-digit performances and contributing to OKC's clutch offense.

Really, the only thing to complain about amidst this four game win streak is the high turnover rate. Losing the ball at key times has allowed opponents to get back into games. But, as a team, OKC is averaging 22.3 assists per game since KD's return, compared to a season average of 20.5. So the Thunder are clearly learning their new offense.

One key thing to pay attention to tonight will be the minutes of Nick Collison and Anthony Morrow. Collison and Morrow seemed to have earned the last two spots in the rotation over the past few games, but were excised from the lineup entirely during the second half on Friday night. Obviously, it would be foolish for Donovan to proceed with an 8 man rotation during the regular season. But it will be interesting to see whom Donovan thinks can fit into this type of game. A crack for McGary, Singler, or Payne certainly isn't out of the question. But nobody seems to fit into the rotation perfectly, because the only wing players available have critical flaws (Morrow on defense, and Singler on a lot of things). Honestly, there will probably just be more minutes for Morrow, with some limited time for Collison.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 118, Atlanta Hawks 113.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 18
(Won 4)

(Lost 1)
November 30th, 2015
Philips Arena, Atlanta, Georgia
7 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Southeast
Injury Report: Tiago Splitter (Doubtful)
Last Season's Matchups: Jan 23 (L 93-103), Mar 20 (W 123-115)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Jeff Teague
Andre Roberson SG Thabo Sefolosha
Kevin Durant SF Kyle Korver
Serge Ibaka PF Paul Milsap
Steven Adams C Al Horford