Fresh off an early Saturday Evening win against the Suns at home, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a tiny bit of momentum. With a record of 16-11 and a reasonable-looking Western Conference middle class, the Thunder are still in position to get home court in the playoffs. BUT. And this is a big BUT. After tonight, over the next 23 games, the Thunder will play 18 on the road and only 5 at home.
Tonight, then, is OKC’s last opportunity to pad their wins before the incoming storm of exhaustion. I’m not sure what the road trip will tell us. Either that we can’t rely on Russ as much as we do, or that our deep roster of misfits always has something to offer.
OKC struggled with the Suns, needing overtime on the road to beat them early in the season. But the Suns were an easy opponent at home last night. They just had no capable Westbrook stopper, so Westbrook went OFF for 26 points and 22 assists. The ever-reliable Steven Adams had 19. Over the past few weeks, Adams has emerged as a much more reliable weapon than Enes Kanter. Still, Kanter chipped in 12, Morrow started and chipped in 11, and even Roberson had 11. Really though, last night was all about Westbrook.
It appeared early on that Dwight Howard was a good Al Horford replacement. Atlanta started the season 9-2. But, since then, Atlanta has gone 4-12. At this point, the Hawks are 13-14 and in 10th place out East. A good chunk of road games have played into Atlanta’s recent failures. But it doesn’t appear to be an injury problem.
Statistically, the Hawks are 29th when it comes to turnover percentage. This means a lot of Atlanta’s problem stem from bad passing. Dennis Schroeder, at 23 years old, is young and a bit turnover prone compared to the elite point guards of the NBA. At a 2 to 1 ratio for Schroeder, you could do worse. But Dwight Howard gets more turnovers than assists, at 2.5 to 1. Paul Milsap and Kent Bazemore contribute two turnovers per game. So among four of the top five Hawk scorers, you’re already at 9.5 turnovers per game. For perspective, Detroit, the lowest turnover team in the NBA right now, averages 11 as a team.
Another problem the Hawks have is getting to the line. Dwight Howard really needs a dynamic pick and roll partner to work. Somebody who can draw fouls around screens. The Hawks don’t have that player. In losing Horford, the Hawks lost scoring and passing. But what Howard brings in defense and rebounding, he can only bring on offense with the right personnel. Schroeder is quick, but he doesn’t have the bulk or physical style of play to get to the line. Milsap gets about four free throws a game. But beyond those three, it’s really a crapshoot. An undervalued aspect of any offense, IMO.
Lastly, the Hawks struggle to defend the three. In general, the Hawks are big, stiff, and not too athletic. Milsap and Howard are both past their athletic primes at 31 years old, and big for their positions. Korver is an ancient sounding 35. And Thabo is 32 and big for his position. Then you’ve got Schroeder and Tim Hardaway, both offensively-focused players. And Mike Muscala is a tank of a player. So all you have left is Kent Bazemore.
Back on December 5th, OKC beat the Hawks 102-99. It was a Westbrook triple-double night. There was a fast pace and a good number of shots. But neither the Hawks nor the Thunder shot it very well from three. And both teams had a good share of turnovers. Expect that same kind of helter-skelter play tonight.
If OKC wants to win, they’ll go turnover-first on defense and play their shooters. Expect to see time for Morrow and Singler, because Donovan will try to exploit how slow Atlanta is. Westbrook can do reasonably well against the Hawks, but he can’t just rule the roost alone like he did against the Suns. As long as OKC can dominate this boards and knock down a few threes, this should be an easy win.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 95, Atlanta Hawks 89.
Injuries: Tiago Splitter (Out), Victor Oladipo (Out), Cameron Payne (Out)
Time: 7:00 PM CST
Place: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
TV: FSOK, FSSE