Tip-Off: 9 P.M. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder radio Network
Now that the first half of the NBA season is behind us, the second half, or for the Thunder’s sake, the playoff push, is on. The Thunder had their fair share of bright spots and downsides in the first half of the season, but now all that matters is the remaining 23 games left in the regular season. The Thunder’s first test will be against the young and struggling Sacramento Kings. With an 18-39 record sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, tonight’s duel should seem like a favorable one for the Thunder to begin a strong second half swing. On the other hand, the Thunder have proven time and time again this season that they may not play to their capabilities against certain opponents. If they want to be on top of their game tonight in Sacramento, here are my 4 keys in order to get the job done:
4) Win the Starting Five Matchup Battle
Other then the certainty that guard Andre Roberson will not return for the remainder of the season, the Thunder for the first time this year will not have to worry about injury issues heading into tonight’s match up. When you’re going into play a team that’s almost 20 games below .500, there really shouldn’t be too many advantages in favor of that team. In this case, that statement remains true. The Kings announced today that they will be starting rookies De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson for the remainder of the season. As they currently hold the 5th worst record in the NBA, it is no surprise with the direction the Kings are trying to go in. With Fox as their starting point guard and Jackson as their starting small forward, they will need a lot of luck and rare poor performances from Russell Westbrook and Paul George if they look to make this night look somewhat competitive. The Thunder will most likely turn to a healthy Alex Abrines to start at shooting guard tonight. Abrines, who has turned himself into a solid defender this year, will have to defend the King’s best perimeter shooter in Buddy Hield. Carmelo Anthony will look to build upon the strong end he had to his first half of the season, and it will be a dogfight down low between Stephen Adams and Willie-Cauley-Stein all night long. Overall, look for the Kings athleticism to test the Thunder in transition but it should not prove enough to beat an all-around better Thunder team.
3) How will the Thunder look to start the second half?
“Rejuvenated.” That was the word used by Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony as he looks to begin the second half of his first season in OKC. Not only does the word rejuvenated work for Anthony but the entire team as well. The Thunder ended the first half on a sour note as they dropped six out of their last nine contests. They also had a six game and an eight game winning streak in the first half, but also suffered two separate four game losing streaks as well. Consistency has been perpetual missing identity of this club through 59 games. Through the devastating loss of Andre Roberson and chemistry problems early on, the Thunder still found a way to be at 7 games over .500 going into the break. Sitting just two games behind San Antonio and one behind Minnesota, OKC has a legitimate shot of vying for the third seed in the Western Conference. The tone will be set tonight, but it will have to be done through consistent play on both ends of the ball through 48 minutes of play.
2) Thunder need to bring energy and effort against Sacramento
It has been the same story line all throughout this season, and head coach Billy Donovan has been acknowledging it more than anybody. The key factor in the Thunder’s wins and losses this season has been their level of energy. It’s extremely ironic considering the Thunder arguably have the most energetic and infectious player in the league in Russell Westbrook. It has been shocking to see that his level of energy hasn’t translated 100% to this point, but the Thunder still have another 23 games to put it all together. Donovan went on to say about his team:
“We’ve been a team that has obviously had some incredibly high moments and we’ve had some moments that have been not so high or haven’t played well.” Donovan said. ‘i’m encouraged because we have done it. It’s not like I have not seen our team do it before. We just have to do it on a more regular, consistent basis.”
It will be interesting to see if the Thunder experience some kind of spark within the clubhouse. Could it be Carmelo’s veteran experience who wants to chase his first NBA title? Or is it Westbrook’s motivation win back-to-back MVP awards? Either way, we all know the Thunder have the talent to go a long way, it’s the matter of if they want it bad enough that could push them over the edge. And it all starts again against a young and feisty Kings team.
1) Melo could prove to be the “X” factor moving forward
Carmelo Anthony returned to play the final two games of the first half for the Thunder. He dropped 24 PTS and then 19 respectively in both match ups. Out of the “Big 3” that was formed to start the year in OKC, Anthony is arguably the only player between Westbrook, George and himself to under perform. To this point, Melo is averaging the fewest MPG of his career (32.3), averaging his fewest PPG total (17.1), and shooting the worst he ever has shot from the floor in his career at 41.2%. You could argue that this is due to age since this is Melo’s 15th season in the NBA, however, just one season ago, he was averaging 6 more points a game (22.4) for the New York Knicks. The Thunder could only benefit from Anthony’s offensive play on the court when he’s on. Down the stretch, Melo is still capable of changing a game in a matter of a few possessions with his offensive prowess. As stated earlier, Anthony feels “rejuvenated” after the week long All-Star weekend lay-off. The break could be the thing that Anthony needs to get his legs under him, and help the Thunder become a serious contender down the stretch here in the second half.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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