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Shellshocked Thunder take on possibly Rondo-less Kings

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After a brutal loss to the Warriors on Saturday, can the Thunder recover?

I block your shots! I block them all!
I block your shots! I block them all!
W. Bennett Berry

The Sacramento Kings currently sit at 10th place in the Western Conference, 3 losses behind Houston at the eighth spot. The playoffs are still well within range for Sacramento, but the team is just 4-10 over their last 14 games.

Given how high scoring the Kings have been this season, it's always confused me as to why they struggle to win. But here's a paragraph about the Sacramento Kings that I find particularly revealing. From Omer Khan at Sactown Royalty:

The truth is that the Kings, when they're not blasting down the court on a fast-break or leakout, struggle to score in the halfcourt. When the shot clock passes the 15 second point, their offensive efficiency drops to 22nd in the league. Their playbook isn't very deep or creative; the defense is usually going to know exactly what the Kings are going to try to do at the beginning of each possession. A disturbing amount of the time, the Kings won't even run a play, going straight into an isolation eerily reminiscent of the days of Tyreke Evans 1-4 flats. This is all intentional, by the way. George Karl preaches freedom; in practical terms, that means no set offensive system, for good and for bad.

By all accounts, the Thunder have really struggled with the Kings this season. The first matchup, on December 7th, saw the Thunder with a fully healthy team. Still, OKC needed some late game offense from Durant to pull out the win in the final seconds. Durant wouldn't be present for the second Thunder-Kings matchup, on January 4th. The result was disaster, as the Thunder were smashed by the Kings, 116-104. Russell Westbrook, Dion Waiters, and Enes Kanter all shot below 30%.

Kevin Durant is easily the Thunder's best anti-Kings weapon. The Kings don't really have a defender that can bother Durant consistently, so it's easy for KD to get off his shots. Durant really shouldn't be doing any distributing against the Kings though. Back on December 7th, Durant had 10 turnovers against Sacramento. Given the fact that Durant has played defacto backup point guard for the past three games, that's a bad sign for tonight. Here's hoping Billy Donovan gives Cam Payne another shot, or at least finds a way to keep Durant from getting pressured.

As a team, the main problem the Kings present the Thunder with is forced turnovers. The Thunder average 16 turnovers a game on the season. Against the Kings, the Thunder turned it over 15 times without Durant and 21 times with Durant. So whatever way you look at it, the Thunder are going to lose possessions. Thus, it might be in OKC's best interest to slow this game down a bit and force the Kings into their halfcourt offense.

Will Rondo Play?

If Rajon Rondo doesn't play tonight, all bets are off. Rondo is currently questionable with tendonitis in his right thumb. Westbrook's offensive production may or may not be affected by the presence of Rondo. Westbrook was great with KD against the Kings on December 7th, with 53% shooting and an assist to turnover ratio of 3.3. But without Durant, on January 4th, Westbrook shot 26% and had an assist to turnover ratio of 2.1. Clearly, having Durant as a weapon will open up things for Westbrook's game. But both of those games had Rondo guarding Westbrook. If Rondo was out today and Darren Collison was in, Westbrook could score even more easily.

Need evidence? Rondo was out against the Clippers on Friday. As a result, Chris Paul had 40 points on an 82% true shooting percentage, with 13 assists and only 2 turnovers.

Stopping Boogie

It's anyone's guess as to whether DeMarcus Cousins shows up tonight. Cousins is yet another tale of two matchups. On December 7th, Boogie was totally shut down. Here's what I wrote in that game's recap:

On the other end of the floor, the Thunder certainly did a number on DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins shot 5 of 20 on the night, and was completely hounded by the trio of Adams, Kanter, and Ibaka. Defense of Cousins was by committee, and OKC did all they could to keep demarcus away from the basket and add pressure. It was obvious that Cousins was getting frustrated late in the game. My evidence is that Cousins was constantly jawing with the refs, lost a jump ball to Westbrook, and badly missed two clutch free throws.

But on January 4th, Cousins had a fantastic outing:

DeMarcus Cousins led the way for the Kings, finishing with 33 points and 19 rebounds. It was one of the most effective games from Cousins in recent memory, as he was able to keep Adams in foul trouble and have his way with Enes Kanter. ... Adams just couldn't seem to catch any luck when he fouled Cousins on a rebound with 3:21 to go in the third, bringing his total to four. But I can't justify what Donovan did later. Donovan put Adams in with 10:52 to go in the fourth, before Cousins had ever taken the floor. Adams immediately proceeded to foul guarding Willie Cauley-Stein at the rim, and then had to be taken out with 5 fouls. This left the Thunder without a center for about 5 minutes. The Kings outscored the Thunder 12-8 during that stretch, with 4 points from Cousins.

Steven Adams foul troubles will certainly be at the heart of the Thunder's defense of Cousins. But OKC may also rely on Ibaka, Kanter, or Collison to defend him. Collison is the one that inspires the most confidence out of those three, simply because he's wily enough to outwit Cousins. Kanter will just combat strength with strength, while Ibaka could get into foul trouble. Still, all four of the Thunder's big men possess the ability to stop Cousins at various times. The only one who can stop Cousins play in and play out is Steven Adams.

How the Thunder have done lately and will do tonight

The Thunder should have a lot of reason to get up for this game emotionally. As we all know, OKC barely lost their second matchup with the Warriors on Saturday. The loss happened in the most tragic fashion, as Durant lost the ball in the final seconds of regulation, giving the Warriors the chance they needed to tie the game. Furthering the tragedy was Durant's foul out just a minute into overtime, forcing the Thunder to rely on their bench. Given that Durant failed the Thunder in regulation and couldn't help in OT, Durant should be extra motivated to come out and kick butt tonight. And I'm not saying this to criticize Durant, but moreso to explain his mindset going into tonight.

Serge Ibaka has been riding a bit of a offensive hot streak lately, scoring double digits in his last six games. Against the Warriors, Ibaka was particularly impressive, scoring key points during the fourth quarter and overtime. Tonight's game against the Kings should present a good opportunity for Ibaka to find his groove. Ibaka had a season high 25 points against Sacramento back on January 4th. That was without KD on the floor, granted. But the Kings still don't play a traditional power forward at least half of the time. Sometimes the Kings will go with a wing at power forward, and other time they'll go with a center at power forward. This should open opportunities for Ibaka to go to his ever-improving post hook, as well as his ever-reliable pick and pop game.

Lastly, OKC's perimeter defense will be on spotlight tonight. Indeed, the Kings have the sixth best team three point percentage in the Association. Mostly, the Kings tend to rely on Darren Collison and Marco Bellinelli to light it up from the bench. It will be interesting to see whether Donovan sticks to the 9 man rotation he's had for the past five games, and whether a non-point guard will be quick enough to track Collison at the three point arc. My guess is that Donovan will stay with his rotation, and that Sacramento's bench perimeter shooting will be a problem.

Anyway, the Thunder are healthy, so they should win this one barring a Boogie explosion.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 131, Sacramento Kings 127.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 60
(Lost 2)

(Lost 2)
February 29th, 2016
Sleep Train Arena, Sacramento, California
9:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: National Basketball Association Television, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network California
Injury Report: Rudy Gay (Probable), Rajon Rondo (Questionable), Eric Moreland (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 6 (W 98-95), Jan 4 (L 116-104)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Darren Collison
Andre Roberson SG Ben McLemore
Kevin Durant SF Rudy Gay
Serge Ibaka PF Quincy Acy
Steven Adams C DeMarcus Cousins