Game: Oklahoma City Thunder @ San Antonio Spurs
Time: 8:30 CST
Location: AT&T Arena, San Antonio
Broadcast: TNT, FSOK
Counterpart: Pounding the Rock
Fresh off two of their worst losses of the season to a pair of sub .500 teams, the Thunder prepare to face the surging San Antonio Spurs twice in three nights- in San Antonio tonight, back in Oklahoma City on Saturday. The Spurs are the hottest team in the league entering tonight; they’ve largely lrighted the ship after a rocky start had them outside of the playoffs early in the season. It’s a long season, but the Spurs have thrust themselves back into the playoff race and into the conversation for best team in the West, non-Warriors division.
Is their play over the last month indicative of what they really are? Probably not, but neither is that first month of the season. In reality, the Spurs are one of many good but not great teams in the Western Conference, and despite how loaded the West is, look at the moment like they’ll once again be in the playoffs. Gregg Popovich is truly a wizard.
The Thunder, floundering at the moment, will need to find a way to slow down the Spurs as they try to get back on track. Here are three things to watch as they attempt to do so.
1. Maestros of the Midrange
The Spurs have thumbed their nose at modernity this season, succeeding despite taking the least amount of shots at the Rim AND the least amount of 3’s, despite those being the most valuable shots in basketball, analytically. They take a full 47% of their shots from the dreaded midrange- 1st in the league by a mile. Three things have allowed the Spurs to flourish with this game plan. Firstly, they are knocking down a high volume of those midranges they love so much- no surprise for a team that employs DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Secondly, they shoot excellently on the 3 pointers and shots at the rim they do get. They are in fact 1st in the entire league in 3 point percentage and 5th in shooting percentage at the rim. That IS a surprise. The Spurs do not profile as a team that would knock down such a high percentage from deep, and indeed the number is probably unsustainable. Everyone except DeRozan and Aldridge is splashing away from deep- 48% from Dante Cunningham, 47% for Davis Bertans, 43% for Bryn Forbes, 42% for Rudy Gay, 40% for Patty Mills. Aside form Mills, those numbers will all probably come down with time. But the Spurs also are careful about what 3’s they take (hence the low volume).
Thirdly, the Spurs almost never turn the ball over- they have the lowest turnover percentage in the league. It will be interesting to see how San-Antonio’s unorthodox (for 2019) offense matches up against OKC’s league-leading defense. Many teams are happy to cede a ton of midrange shots, in favor of taking away shots at the rim or 3 pointers. The Thunder try to take away everything with their aggressive scheme. They will not let the Spurs walk into midrangers, and will of course try to force turnovers. Which of these non traditional philosophies will triumph?
2. Second Unit
The Thunder are without Nerlens Noel for this contest after his nasty fall Tuesday night (he was concussed but thankfully did not suffer any factures). Noel has been a key rotation piece this season, giving the team good minutes when Steven Adams rests. Last season the thunder struggled mightily without a true center, with the second unit featuring Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson in tandem, neither of whom are true centers. Grant as a smallball center remains a theoretically appealing option that OKC has occasionally turned to in this season, and could again against playoff opponents that go without a traditional center for stretches.
The results so far have been mixed; OKC is a measly +2.0 per 100 possessions when playing lineups that feature Grant but not Adams or Noel. Noel’s absence will probably result in OKC giving another look to such a small ball lineup, unless Billy Donovan decides to break out a classic weird Billy lineup tonight. Watch those minutes.
3. The Other Point Guard
Amidst a flurry of articles about Russell Westbrook’s shooting struggles — and, as frustrating as that can be for Thunder fans to read- Russ has sucked shooting the ball. The thunder want to be taken seriously as contenders. That means people are going to talk about it — Dennis Schroder has managed to avoid notice. The perks of coming off the bench!
But Schroder has been awful as of late. He is shooting 36% from the field on 13 attempts per game- including 23% from dee on 4 point attempts per game. Those are Marcus Smart numbers, but on twice the shot volume Smart gets- and Schroder is not having Smart’s impact defensively (also, Smart has gotten up to 35% from 3!).
Over that stretch, the 5 man lineup of Schroder and the starters (Westbrook, George, Grant, Adams) that usually closes games is -10.1 per 100 possessions. That same lineup with Terrance Ferguson in Schroder’s place is +17.6.
Hmmmmmmmmmmmm (thinking emoji). Keep your eye on how Schroder plays alongside the starters when he enters for Ferguson- and keep your eye on who Billy D goes with is the score is close down the stretch.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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