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Thunder vs. Timberwolves Preview: Oklahoma City gets one last chance

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This is actually more of a Spurs-Pelicans preview....

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Steven Adams fears no one!
Steven Adams fears no one!
William Bennett Berry

Why a Thunder victory is guaranteed

It's a virtual certainty that the Thunder will win this game. A win on Minnesota's part would jeopardize their current position as the #1 lottery pick. Tanking teams will get occasional wins down the stretch, because things happen. But on the last day of the season, the consequences of a win or loss are very immediate. Personally, I remember the last day of the 2011-12 campaign, when Warrior coach Mark Jackson started an entire lineup of rookies. Jackson was going against a similarly depleted Spurs team, so he had to actually tell his team to hold the ball at the end of the game, to avoid a potential comeback.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, the outcome of this game is pre-determined. An upset by the T-Wolves here would be tantamount to an upset in the WWE. I say this as someone who's watched countless hours of Summer League games and low-level international ball, so don't think that I'm simply dismissing the T-Wolves out of hand.

Why the Spurs will try tonight

The real intrigue lies in New Orleans tonight. If the Pelicans lose to the Spurs, the Thunder will make the playoffs. Normally the Spurs would be considered threatening, but everyone's wondering whether coach Gregg Popovich will see the incentive to win or not. In the last game of each of the past three seasons, Pop has intentionally sat his players to some extent. Pop is 1-2 in those games, with the two losses coming to teams under .500. Still, it's worth noting that all three games in which Pop tanked were completely meaningless when it came to seeding. The Spurs actually have incentive to win tonight. Not only for seeding purposes, but also because they will want to avoid a potential matchup with the Warriors until the Conference finals.

What happens if the Spurs lose? Assuming a worst-case scenario, San Antonio would lose home-court advantage in the first round. Going from potentially avoiding a semi-final with Golden State to losing your first round advantage would be a huge loss, so you better believe that Pop will take this game seriously.

Spurs vs. Pelicans Analysis

Overall, the Pelicans hold a 2-1 advantage over the Spurs this season, and all three games have been close. The common link among all of the strong Pelican performances was a really efficient line from Anthony Davis. AD shot over 42% and took at least 6 foul shots in every game against the Spurs this season. Davis was also critical in the Pelicans' most recent win over San Antonio. From David Fisher's recap of that game over at The Bird Writes:

Anthony Davis took this game over in the third quarter. After missing his first two jumpers he buried three in a row from nearly the same exact spot as Holiday and Evans were setting him up in the pick-and-pop. In that span Davis also turned in a block of poor Cory Joseph. That was just the beginning. Then this happened.

Davis then turned away a Boris Diaw attempt with ease. But the Brow was not done. Going for the trifecta the Spurs decided to post up Tim Duncan on Anthony Davis. This was a poor choice.

Davis recorded three blocks on four Spur possessions. The Pelicans maintained immediate possession after every single block. After the Duncan exchange my wife (in the bedroom with the baby is our good luck arrangement) texts me "AD SAID NO! AD IS MAD." New Orleans went into the fourth up 70-64.

On the Spurs end, they tend to get the best contribution from Tony Parker. TP's only played in one game against the Pelicans this season, but he scored 28 points on 61% shooting. That gives me hope for a Spur victory, as Parker will certainly play tonight. Parker's performance is even more inspiring when you consider that he didn't play down the stretch of that game. From Michael Erler's recap of that Spurs-Pelicans matchup:

The margin stood at ten, 94-84 with 4:41 to go. The defense stiffened at long last but "The Big Three" were a comedy of errors on the other end whether they were turnovers, missed layups or shots rejected by Davis and his springy teammates. Pop waved the white flag, bringing in Cory Joseph for Parker, Green for Ginobili and Aron Baynes for Duncan, basically the same gentlemen responsible for the Pelicans getting out to a cushy lead at the end of the third.

To everyone's shock, the strategy --if it can even be called strategy when Pop was just resting his guys-- worked. A baseline jumper from Kawhi Leonard, a driving layup from Joseph, two crafty drives from Boris Diaw who up to then had hardly shown a pulse and a put-back layup from Leonard gave the Spurs points on five straight trips while New Orleans came up dry on three of their five.

On a team level, the Spurs struggle against the Pelicans in the turnover department. The Pelicans actually forced a fully stocked Spurs squad to commit more turnovers than assists in the earliest matchup, and forced at least 14 turnovers in the two matchups after that. But the Spurs do possess a certain resiliency at the end of games that the Pelicans lack.In their lone win against the Pelicans this season, the Spurs needed a miracle tip to send it to overtime. While in OT, San Antonio overcame a 5 point deficit to come back and win.

What about our team?

Expect for Scott Brooks and the players to treat this game as if it were any playoff game. Tight rotations, starters playing until the game is well in hand, that type of thing. Without the presence of KD and Ibaka, it would appear that OKC has settled on an offensive trifecta of Westbrook, Waiters, and Kanter. These three will all certainly see at least 10 shots, mostly in very basic sets. The rest of the Thunder offense goes to specialists. Anthony Morrow will shoot whatever's open. Steven Adams will take what he can get near the rim. Nick Collison will pick and pop. D.J. Augustin will manage the ball. And Andre Roberson will attempt an open layup and three.

On Minnesota's end, tonight's game is basically a glorified showcase for Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. Together, they'll take about 35-40 shots. The Thunder should definitely look to keep both of them away from the rim, as well as put a physical defender on Wiggins. The presence of Andre Roberson on Wiggins and Adams near the rim will certainly help out this cause. Still, there isn't much to be threatened by from the rest of the Wolves' roster. They've got Chase Budinger, a role playing spot shooter, and then a bunch of fringe players with no real NBA minutes yet.

Whatever might happen, savor the highlights tonight. We've still got one more Russell Westbrook show to watch!

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 121, Minnesota Timberwolves 98.

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

2014-15 NBA Season Game 82
@
44-37
(Won 1)

16-65
(Lost 11)
April 15th, 2015
The Target Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: National Basketball Association Television, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Net Northwest
Injury Report: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Shabazz Muhammad, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio (Out), Justin Hamilton, Kevin Martin, Anthony Bennett, Gorgui Dieng, Gary Neal, Kevin Garnett (Officially day-to-day, but mostly just out)
This Season's Matchups: Oct 29 (L 89-106), Dec 23 (L 111-115 OT), Feb 27 (L 112-115)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Zach LaVine
Andre Roberson SG Andrew Wiggins
Dion Waiters SF Chase Budinger
Enes Kanter PF Robbie Hummel
Steven Adams C Adreian Payne

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