(This is a guest post by realrob2005)
Through their first 42 games, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit at a disappointing 22-20, tied for 5th (and 7th) in the Western Conference. Consistency, mentally and physically, on both sides of the ball have been the Thunder’s biggest downfall up to this point. It will once again be tested tonight as OKC continues their short 2 game road trip against the 11th placed team in the Eastern Conference, the Charlotte Hornets. If OKC looks to break the current 3 game slide that their currently on, here are my 5 keys that will lead to a “thunderous” victory:
5) Andre Roberson out for 6th straight game with left knee tendinitis; Terrance Ferguson to start again
Since the departure of defensive specialist Andre Roberson back on December 30th, OKC has played to a sub-par 2-4 record. There is no doubt that Roberson provides much needed dependability and energy on the defensive side of the ball that OKC has lacked for most of the season. That lack of defensive support from Roberson’s absence has already shown in recent games. OKC has allowed 110.6 PPG to their opposition, while allowing just 101.6 during the rest of the regular season. Head coach Billy Donovan will once again turn to 19 year old rookie Terrance Ferguson to start at the shooting guard position tonight. Ferguson, who comes into tonight’s matchup averaging just 2.6 PPG on 39% shooting in just about 11 MPG, will provide little-to no contributions on the offensive end. Ferguson will have to contend with former OKC guard Jeremy Lamb who has been one of the few brights spots on the Hornets this season. The 6’5 athletic shooting guard comes into Saturday’s matchup with a 14.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.5 APG on 45% shooting with 35% coming from beyond the three point line. If Ferguson is able to live up to Donovan’s wishes of playing with more energy and aggression over 48 minutes and the guys around Ferguson are able to shoot the rock, expect a road victory from the Thunder on Saturday.
4) A full 48 minutes of ‘consistent energy and focus’
I’m paraphrasing head coach Billy Donovan of course, but the statement could not be more true. With Carmelo Anthony appearing to be on the last legs of his career and the bench proving subsequent minutes off the bench, the Thunder need to provide more of a spark throughout the entirety of Saturday’s matchup against the Hornets. Donovan went on to talk about how vital it is to play a full 48 minutes in the NBA regardless of who your opponent might be:
It’s mind-boggling in some ways to consider the lack of aggression displayed by OKC at certain points in this season. The face of the franchise in Russell Westbrook is a metaphorical bull who will possession after possession barrel through the teeth of the defense to score two points for his team. The same cannot be said for this all around group. With Westbrook continually almost posting triple-doubles night in and night out and the other three veteran stars in the starting rotation (Anthony, George, Adams) consuming a bulk of the minutes, Donovan will need to rely on his bench to provide the relief and stable minutes against a youthful and exuberant Hornets team. Jelami Grant, Alex Abrines, and veteran PG Raymond Felton will need to provide 10-15 minutes of substance to help propel OKC to a win on Saturday.
3) Thunder need to give it their all against sub .500 teams
Charlotte comes into Saturday’s matchup against the Thunder with a 16-24 record. Currently five games behind the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference and don’t appear to be moving up anywhere on that totem pole anytime soon. Surprisingly, teams like Charlotte have given OKC fits all season long. The Thunder have just an adequate 9-8 record against sub .500 teams. Just to put that into perspective, the top 4 teams in the Western Conference, Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and Minnesota, all have dominating records against the teams that they are suppose to dominate. (Warriors 14-3, Rockets 16-3, Spurs 16-4, and Timberwolves 12-5). One of the Thunder’s most recent losses apart of this 3 game losing streak came against the 16-26 Phoenix Suns. Clearly, performances like that against lottery teams could keep OKC in the lower playoff seeds in the Western Conference or ultimately push them out of playoff contention entirely.
Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony had a few comments regarding the team’s play against under .500 teams:
“We were just going out there and playing, and when we got punched it were like, ‘Oh we got punched. Let’s punch back. Let’s start fighting back,’” Anthony said. “A lot of times when you give teams, those types of teams that confidence, it’s hard to fight out of that hole, because you have to make the right plays, make every shot, and we can’t rely on that.”
Coming from a future Hall of Famer who has way too much experience playing on bad teams, OKC fans need to take in and receive the message Carmelo Anthony is trying to convey here. To add on to Anthony’s case, unlike the Thunder who have gone 2-4 in their last 6, Charlotte has gone the exact opposite at 4-2. A hot team in the NBA regardless of their overall record is a threat to any team. If OKC plans on getting back on track today they need to rely on the veteran presence of Anthony and his words in order to motivate the Thunder going forward.
2) Steven Adams needs to shut down Dwight Howard
Arguably two of the league’s largest and most physical centers go toe-to-toe on Saturday. Thunder’s Steven Adams is having his best season in his 5th year in the NBA. Known to be a very aggressive and solid rim protector, Adams has been setting careers highs so far this season offensively. Coming into Saturday’s matchup, Adams is averaging 13.4 PPG, on 63% FG, and 66% from the free throw line (all career highs). Adams is also taking on the biggest workload of his career as well averaging around 32 minutes a game while also grabbing a current career high 8.6 RPG as well.
With all of this in mind, Adams opposing matchup today in former superstar Dwight Howard is having a resurgent season out in Charlotte. Howard is averaging 15.5 PPG, 12.2 RPG on 53% shooting. The most impressive stat of Howard’s resurgent season is that he has not missed a single game all year. He missed all of 7 last year with Atlanta, but the years prior before that Howard was a constant injury prone for a good part of his career. Against Adams in their last matchup back on December 11th, Howard led all Hornets in scoring with 23. Adams also played in that game but did not shoot well from the field, scoring just 11 and not slowing down Howard whatsoever in the process. If the Thunder really have any chance of getting things back on track it all starts with slowing Howard down in the paint. If Adams can prevent Howard from getting any offensive and can box him out and gain paint dominance down low, Charlotte loses their second best scoring option behind star point guard Kemba Walker. Adams arguably has the toughest assignment to deal with on Saturday and could possibly be the make or break to a Thunder win.
1) Let Russ continue to be Russ
It really is hard to fathom where the Thunder would be at this point in their season without the excellency of Russell Westbrook. Once again the 2016 NBA MVP continues to build another strong MVP case this season. Westbrook made history last year by being the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over the course of an entire season. He is looking to do that in back to back year’s as he comes into Saturday’s game against the Hornets without any signs of slowing down. Westbrook’s 25.1 PPG, 10 APG, and 9.6 RPG are the sole reason why the Thunder are not sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference this season. Westbrook is arguably the only player on the Thunder roster not to hit any sort of a cold stretch during this season.
Even in the midst of their losing streak, Russ is continuing to put up jaw-dropping numbers: 28.6 PPG, 9.3 APG, 9.6 RPG on 51% shooting. He is the heart and soul to their offense and the aggressor and intimidator on defense next to Steven Adams and Paul George. Russ will have an incredibly talented offensive point guard in Kemba Walker to defend, but should be able to do relay races around Walker defensively, hoping to provide enough damage on the offensive end to lead to an OKC victory and to get this team back on the right track.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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