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Thunder vs Timberwolves preview: OKC looks to bounce back vs Minnesota

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Following a disappointing offensive showing against the Jazz, Russell Westbrook and Co. return home in search of their second win of the season

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Through two games, the Thunder's season has been defined by inconsistency. In their season opener against the Knicks, both the offense and defense shined, holding New York to just 40.5 percent shooting and forcing 26 turnovers en route to a comfortable 105-84 victory. Shiny new toys, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, scored 28 and 22 points respectively while Russell Westbrook posted his 80th career triple-double.

Last night's game against the Jazz was a different story. The defense, which is likely to be one of the top units in the league this season, held their own, limiting the Jazz to just 96 points. Yet, Oklahoma City's Big Three struggled with both continuity and efficiency on offense as the Thunder scored just 87 points.

They welcome the Minnesota Timberwolves to town, looking to snag their first division victory of the season. Here are five things to watch for in tonight's matchup, which tips off at 6 PM:

How will the Thunder defend Karl-Anthony Towns?

The Thunder struggled in their opening game of the season against another mobile, athletic big man with 3-point range, surrendering 31 points and 12 rebounds to Kristaps Porzingis. In four games against the Thunder last season, Towns proved too much to handle, averaging 28.5 points and 10.7 rebounds on 57.1 percent shooting. While Oklahoma City improved defensively this offseason, the onus will still be on Steven Adams to limit the third-year big man's contributions. Adams is an integral piece in the Thunder's defensive unit and it is worth monitoring how he goes about defending Towns.

Which Russell Westbrook shows up?

Westbrook has lived up to his billing as stat-sheet-stuffer in the Thunder's first two games this season, averaging 12.5 assists and 11.5 rebounds. What’s been surprising, though, is the 2016-17 scoring champ’s lack of shot attempts — he’s averaging just 13.5 points on 11.5 shots per game. Against the Knicks, Westbrook was efficient and lethal, scoring 21 points on 7-12 shooting while chipping in 10 rebounds and 16 assists. Last night, against a more formidable test defensively in the Jazz and Ricky Rubio, Westbrook struggled to put the ball in the basket, going 2-11.

Westbrook is, and always will be, the engine that makes this team run. Facing Jeff Teague, a point guard not known for his defensive chops, we should anticipate a return to form for Westbrook. It will be interesting to see how the All-Star point guard looks to make an impact, though. Last season, Westbrook led the Thunder in shot attempts in 78 of the 81 games he played. This season, he has been outpaced by multiple teammates in each of the Thunder’s first two contests. Westbrook has a diverse skill set that allows him to contribute in a number of ways, but with a new, more talented team around him, his style of play is still worth monitoring, especially this early in the season.

Who guards Jimmy Butler and who guards Andrew Wiggins?

The Thunder roster a pair of elite perimeter defenders in Paul George and Andre Roberson. In turn, the Timberwolves counter with two talented wing scorers in Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. Being that Sunday’s game will be the first true test for both of the Thunder’s wings, it is important to follow as to how Billy Donovan utilizes each player defensively. Will he stick Roberson on Butler, given that George possesses more offensive responsibilities? Will he rotate between the two depending on the situation? Who does Donovan have more confidence in defensively? All are questions worth monitoring.

The league today is dominated by perimeter scoring and the Thunder’s path to the NBA Finals is littered with talented wings such as Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. Sunday’s contest against the Timberwolves will provide a glimpse into how the Thunder plan to defend these players down the road.

Will we see more efficient and well-rounded games from George and Melo?

While new arrivals George and Melo have both scored over 20 points in the Thunder’s first two contests, each has struggled with efficiency while unable to make much of a mark in areas other than scoring. George is shooting just 40.5 percent this season — a far cry from the 46.1 percent clip he shot last season. Meanwhile, Melo is averaging just two rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. Although Anthony has never posted gaudy assist numbers throughout his career, the 6-foot-8 forward is a strong rebounder and must improve in that area. His anticipated improvement should help the Thunder return to their ways of old, when they led the NBA in rebounds per game a season ago; this season, they rank just 17th through two games.

Which new-look squad is coming together more rapidly?

Sunday’s matchup is a contest between two teams with many new pieces. It will likely serve as an early benchmark, testing which squad has integrated their new talent more fluidly. It will take time for the Thunder to reach their collective peak this season, but with the team possessing lofty goals, it is worth noting how they approach a Timberwolves squad likely to contend for the Northwest Division crown.

Poll

Who do you think will win tonight?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Thunder
    (37 votes)
  • 60%
    Timberwolves
    (57 votes)
94 votes total Vote Now