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Thunder vs Magic preview: 4 factors for OKC to get back in playoff hunt

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OKC needs a win pronto to reestablish themselves as serious contenders. Next up - the lottery team who last beat them by double-digits. No, the other one. The other one. The other one.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tip-Off: 7 P.M. CT

Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma

Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal on 98.1 FM OKC

4) Starting 5 match up battle against Magic

Back on November 29th, the Thunder traveled out to Orlando in the midst of a 2 game losing skid. They pushed that streak even further to 3 as they were toppled by the Magic 121-108, at one point trailing in the 4th by 20. Magic forward Aaron Gordon dropped a career high 40 points and Russell Westbrook scored 37 in the Thunder loss.

Fast forward to almost 3 months later, and the two teams are largely the same as last time. The Magic sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are well out of a playoff picture, and the Thunder are still trying to figure out where they fit in the Western Conference playoff picture. If OKC looks to add a W in the win column tonight, the Thunder’s core 3 in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will need to turn in much better offensives performances than what they brought to the table in an embarrassing loss to Golden State on Saturday. They should be able to turn that around against one of the poorest defending teams in the NBA.

At the top of the key, Westbrook and Josh Huestis will get the nod as they go head-to-head against D.J. Agustin and Even Fournier. Like the rest of the league, an under-sized Agustin will have problems preventing Westbrook from attacking the rim. Agustin also shouldn’t count on Westbrook shooting 27% from the floor like he did against Golden State on Saturday. Huestis will have to turn out a solid perimeter defensive performance tonight, as Fournier will look to torch the Thunder from 3 point range. Fournier is tied for the lead on the Magic with Gordon in PPG (18). Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will look to resurrect poor shooting performances in their last outing as well. Jonathon Simmons and Aaron Gordon will look to keep them at bay. Even with his long arms and solid athleticism, it will be extremely tough for Simmons to get any advantage over George tonight. Gordon, who will be in his third game back since returning from a hip injury, is still looking to get back into form against Carmelo Anthony and it will be curious to see how long Billy Donovan stays with Melo if Gordon gets hot again like last game.

Potentially the most intriguing match up tonight will be the battle down low. Steven Adams and Nikola Vucevic pose as two of the best all around centers in the game. They have contrasting playing styles, with Vucevic playing with a better outside game than Adams, while Adams is by far the better rim protector and PnR finisher. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top.

3) Thunder need to rebound from poor offensive performance

Even when you battle the best team in the NBA, you could not have been able to predict the awful performance the Thunder turned in against the Warriors on Saturday. Besides scoring a season low 80 points, they collectively shot 33% from the field as a team, 27% from beyond the arc, and just 62% from the free throw line as well. All around, the Thunder couldn't buy a basket at The Oracle. George shot 1-14, Anthony 6-17, and Westbrook 4-15 (24%). This is a trend that should not and will not continue. The starters will rebound, but the bench has been the most alarming issue for the Thunder as of late. Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant have disappeared these past few games and it is vital that they come out shooting tonight and provide solid minutes off the bench for the Thunder to earn a win.

2) With a win tonight, this could be the start of a critical winning streak for Thunder

Right now would be the most opportune time for a Thunder win streak. The Thunder currently sit 7th in the Western Conference as they are just two games behind San Antonio for 3rd place, but the Clippers are just a game and a half out in the 9th seed. This could be the stretch where the Thunder solidify themselves as a top 3 team in the West. Over the course of their next 10 games, the Thunder play just 3 teams that are in playoff contention. The Thunder will take on the Magic, Dallas, Sacramento, Atlanta and Phoenix twice. This stretch could determine whether the Thunder make or miss the playoffs. Although it may seem bright that the Thunder have a week schedule ahead, but the Thunder have a combined 2-5 record against those upcoming teams. It should be time that the Thunder can show up and beat the teams they’re suppose too to earn a guaranteed playoff position.

1) How much of the court will Westbrook see tonight?

All of Thunder nation had a brief heart attack late in the third quarter against Golden State on Saturday. Warriors center Zaza Pachullia “intentionally” (in the words of Westbrook) fell on top of Westbrook to try and injure him and get him out of the game. Westbrook sat on the bench for most of the game after that with ice being applied to his knee. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Westbrook is “fine” and will start tonight. It makes you wonder if Donovan should give Westbrook his usual amount of 35-38 minutes of floor time tonight. The Thunder need all 110% of Westbrook for this playoff push moving forward and cannot afford to take any risks with him at this point in time. If Westbrook’s minutes were to be limited, OKC has shown they can rise to the challenge.