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Thunder vs Raptors Preview: Can the Raptors keep winning against an elite team?

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The Thunder will be their first test from a true contender, but DeMarre Carroll and company are looking to slow down the Thunder.

WBB

Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder gutted out two close wins and cruised to their third before coughing up what should have been a W in Houston on Monday night, collapsing in the third quarter to lose a 15-point lead and, eventually, the game. It’s still early, but with a loss under their belt, it’s at least a little more rational to start looking at areas OKC needs to improve. Instead of entertaining the latest Russ vs. KD alpha dog/offensive control hot takes that have resurfaced because Westbrook is scoring half a point more per game than Durant, let’s look at the lineups. Everything is still a small sample size, and Billy Donavan’s unsettled rotation leaves us with little lineup data to work with. Outside of his starting unit, no other combination has played more than 13 minutes together. But we’ll start there: the starting group has been underwhelming.

We’re familiar with the historical success rate of OKC’s big three: throw Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka onto the court together and they’re typically going to dominate the opponent to the tune of 7-12 more points per 100 possessions. This year’s starting unit, where the big three are playing the most minutes together, has come in under that so far with a +6.4 net rating. Ibaka’s hiccups aside, the fault doesn’t lie with any of the Thunder stars; Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are holding the group back.

Roberson and Adams were chosen to start in order to help the team begin games with a defense-first mindset, a Scott Brooks strategy that Donavan has embraced. The problem is, Adams and Roberson haven’t been good on defense. They both have a net-negative impact on that end of the floor, while still fouling as much as they have in the past (which is too much). Roberson has been moderately better on offense so far, but knocking down .5 three-pointers per game when completely unguarded is not going to convince teams to give the Thunder offensive greats any more space. Outside of the Nuggets blowout, Roberson has had a very poor start to the season. Adams has actually been less productive on offense than last year, making the 2015-16 starters seem haunted by ghosts of clunky offensive starters from years past. Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are still alive, right?

Swapping in Dion Waiters in place of Roberson in the same lineup has been worse (no shocker), and swapping Morrow in has been explosive (again, no shocker). Outside of that, the lineups that have been most productive have featured Durant as the small-ball four (still not shocked). With Morrow playing 10 minutes below his career average, this is an area to watch closely. Whether Donavan can coach the units to start working the way he wants them to, or bends to what the numbers start saying louder, something will have to give for OKC to develop into a great—not just good—team this season.

Where They At: Toronto Raptors

Toronto has had a remarkable start to 2015-16. This, after tailing off badly last season, bringing in a career role player as their biggest free agent addition (DeMare Carroll), losing an important role player (Amir Johnson), and inking Jonas Valanciunas to an expensive extension. Sitting at 4-0 atop the Eastern Conference, the Raptors appear wise in their decision to keep tweaking a winner rather than blowing the team up, as many were predicting they would do this summer.

Carroll is producing up to his contract, averaging 16 and 5 while shooting 42% from three. Valanciunas is also playing some of the best basketball of his career, averaging a 15 and 11. And Kyle Lowry is his usual, stat-stuffing self, with 17.3 points, 7.3 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals on average.

The Matchup

These teams split their matchups last year, and the Raptors have beaten good teams to open the season. The Thunder will be their first test from a true contender, however. Carroll will try for his best Kawhi Leonard impression while guarding Durant, hoping to lead the team’s efforts to prove their defense can stop elite bunches like the Thunder. DeMar DeRozan against Roberson/Waiters/Morrow will be an interesting matchup, as will the stretches where Enes Kanter and Valancunias guard each other. They’ll probably do the old "I won’t guard you if you don’t guard me" truce found in pickup basketball games around the country.

Prediction: Thunder 110 Raptors 101

2014-15 NBA Season Game
@
4-0
(Won 4)

3-1
(Lost 1)
November 4th, 2015

Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City

7 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma, NBA League Pass

Injury Report: Lucas Nogueira (DTD)
This Season's Matchups: N/A
Probable Starters

Russell Westbrook

PG Kyle Lowry

Andre Roberson

SG DeMar DeRozan

Kevin Durant

SF DeMarre Carroll

Serge Ibaka

PF Luis Scola
Steven Adams C Jonas Valanciunas