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Westbrook and Oladipo meet again in Thunder-Magic rematch

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Can Westbrook replicate his 48 point performance?

Beauty and the Funaki
Beauty and the Funaki
W. Bennett Berry

After a strong 19-13 start to the season, the Orlando Magic have since languished into obscurity. Over the past 15 games, the Magic have won 2 and lost 13. There hasn't been a sudden change in the team's chemistry, as you might expect. Instead, the Magic are simply dealing with a tougher portion of the schedule, and coming to reality in terms of how old their team actually is.

Roster Problems in Orlando

Zach Lowe, in a recent column of his, summarizes the Magic's problems in a nutshell:

The Magic finally pulled out of the skid with a huge win Sunday against Boston, but this team still looks like a mish-mash of puzzle pieces pulled from a bunch of different puzzles. Scott Skiles can't settle on a lineup that both scores and defends.

Only the Lakers and Suns have scored fewer points per possession since the calendar flipped to 2016, and Orlando's offense has clanked in crunch time all season. Coaches say any shaky shooter becomes harder to play late in close games, when defenses focus in and leverage every edge. The Magic are full of shaky shooters. They compensate by cutting like mad men when defenders ignore them, but that doesn't help when players cut into each other...

I don't want to put any words in Lowe's mouth, but I agree with his sentiment. The Magic have only one player shooting over 40% from three at the moment, and that's Channing Frye. In the modern NBA, that's just not a recipe for success. I'm particularly critical of two combinations: Oladipo/Payton, and Harris/Gordon. Since none of these players can consistently shoot the three, the Magic are really hurting themselves by having these players in the same position. If I were GM of their team, I'd try to break up those two combinations right away. (That's saying nothing about the relationships on the team or contracts, though.)

Meanwhile, the Magic big men present another subset of problems. Guys like Nikola Vucevic , Channing Frye, Jason Smith, and Andrew Nicholson do wonders for your offense. All of them can shoot better then most big men, and Vucevic/Nicholson have serious footwork. But none of them has anything to offer on defense, other than rebounding.

Thunder Crusin'

The Thunder continue to look strong, having just come off of a convincing win against the Washington Wizards at home. That leaves Oklahoma City at 11-1 over their past 12 games, with four games to go until the All-Star Break.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant continued their streak of sublime play against the Wizards. It was yet another triple-double for Westbrook, just his second in a row and seventh on the season. Durant didn't have as much of a "wow" game, but still finished with an extremely solid 28 points on 50% shooting. It took Durant's streak of 20+ point games to 35 in a row.

Of particular note against the Wizards is Serge Ibaka. Strong shooting from mid-range, two blocks, and solid box outs marked Ibaka's best performance of his last three games. Kanter and Adams, both taking advantage of Washington's lack of a front line, finished in double figures. Cameron Payne, playing in his first game since going out with a concussion, appeared to be no worse for the wear. 8 Points, 2 assists, 2 steals, no turnovers. Can't ask for much more!

Double-Overtime Madness, back in October

The first time these two teams met, it was just the second game of the season. And the Magic were able to take the Thunder to the brink, amassing an 18 point fourth quarter lead. But the Thunder, led by Durant and Westbrook, staged a massive comeback that took until double overtime to resolve. It was a very telling game for both teams. The Thunder struggled with bench production, while the Magic struggled to close games.

Interestingly, D.J. Augustin was part of the Thunder's crunch time lineup in that game. Augustin has since been phased out of the rotation, so he likely won't play tonight. But Augustin was playing in place of Ibaka. Ibaka wasn't having a terrible night up to that point, and played a good chunk of the first three quarters. But Ibaka simply didn't push the pace as much as Donovan wanted. Given the Thunder's success in a fast paced game last time, I'd expect the Thunder to go with a similarly offensive-minded guard this time around. Maybe some late minutes for Payne or Morrow? Waiters was in the crunch time lineup last time, and likely will be there this time as well.

Unsurprisingly, Enes Kanter also played for the Thunder in crunch time. Kanter had no defensive equal, so he was essential for some early fourth quarter points. In overtime, the Thunder opted for defense, and replaced Kanter with Adams.

On the Magic's end, their defensive scheme revolved around stopping Russell Westbrook. It wasn't very successful, as Westbrook finished with a season high 43 points, along with 11 rebounds and 8 assists. Here's what I had to say about how Skiles handled Westbrook:

"Aside from a stretch of overtime, Elfrid Payton's defense of Westbrook was abominable. Payton was simply too inexperienced, as he fell for Westbrook's dribble fakes and couldn't detect screens. But Victor Oladipo was a much more effective defender. This is due to Oladipo's better sense for the ball, superior quickness, and larger size in the post.

Fortunately, Oladipo can be neutralized. As we saw in the fourth quarter, going small with Kanter allows Westbrook to navigate the pick and roll game more effectively. Kanter's presence gives the Thunder their best roll threat, while Durant's presence forces a defensive man to the perimeter. Generally, that means Westbrook will have one or two more viable options in any given situation."

Since then, Adams has proven himself just as effective as Kanter when put into a pick and roll situation. It will be interesting to see who gets the fourth quarter minutes tonight, for sure.

Nevertheless, the Magic are an all-around solid defensive team. And last time, Orlando was able to give the Thunder problems by defending the three and forcing turnovers. I have no doubt that tonight will be a test of the Thunder's ability to adjust to different lineups, as well as take care of the ball. Given how much this Thunder team has improved over the past two months, I have no doubt that they'll pass with flying colors.

Unless this rubbish happens again:

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Orlando Magic 104.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 51
(Lost 1)

(Won 4)
February 3rd, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Florida
Injury Report: Andre Roberson (Out), C.J. Watson (Out), Joe Harris (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Oct 30 (W 139-136)
Probable Starters
Elfrid Payton PG Russell Westbrook
Victor Oladipo SG Dion Waiters
Tobias Harris SF Kevin Durant
Aaron Gordon PF Serge Ibaka
Nikola Vucevic C Steven Adams