The Thunder got rag-dolled by the Trailblazers on Wednesday night and will have the opportunity to win a game at home before a short one game trip to New Orleans. The Thunder will play two consecutive games against the Pelicans and the first game will be played at home in Oklahoma. The tie starts at 8:00 (EST) and the Thunder will need the crowd advantage as much as possible in order to start righting the ship. New Orleans come into the game off the Anthony Davis return game at the Smoothie King Centre. The Pelicans lost that game 114-110 as their former star torched the New Orleans’ defence and got the Lakers over the line in a close game. On Friday, the Pelicans will play against another former star in the form of Chris Paul.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Terrible Defence - Oklahoma City played poorly against the Blazers the other night. OKC gave up too many points to the Blazers early which effectively settled the game before the second half started. The Blazers scored forty two points in the first quarter which meant that a sixteen point deficit was established before the second quarter started. The Thunder have no real chance at reducing the deficit while OKC was so porous on the defensive end of the floor. The Trailblazers were exceptional in terms of efficiency from three, Portland shot 46.7% on attempts from beyond the arc. Oklahoma City has to make it harder for shooters like Lillard and McCollum from behind the arc, the Thunder cannot allow these players to get a rhythm going. The coaching staff needs to focus their practices on improving perimeter defence, the help rotations has to be much sharper if the Thunder want to be competitive in every game. Team defence does not come easily and the only way that a good defence can come about is through practice and communication. Billy Donovan needs to spend time building a well drilled, cohesive unit on the defensive end.
- Steven Adams needs rest - Steven Adams has been a constant for the Thunder during these times of tumult. Adams has been a rock for the team when his surroundings has not always been certain. However, Adams’ play does look like it has slipped from the standard that he played at a few years ago. Against the Blazers, Adams was dominated inside by Whiteside as he could not deal with Whiteside’s physicality and explosiveness. In fact, Steve looked immobile and helpless against Whiteside. The decline in play is largely due to accumulated, nagging injuries from years of tough, physical play. At this point in time, it makes sense for the Thunder to give Adams a couple of weeks rest where he can get his body right. The team does not have the pressure of actively contending for the play-offs and therefore the Thunder do not need Steve to play through the pain. This is a window where injuries can be rehabbed and it would be wise for the Thunder to take this opportunity.
- Jrue Holiday Test for SGA - Jrue Holiday has played really well to start the season for new Orleans. Holiday’s importance for the Pelicans has only grown with the Davis departure and David Griffin, the Pelicans’ exec, has been pointed in making clear that Jrue is the team’s cornerstone. Holiday has played that way and his two-way play has been trouble for guards across the league. Jrue’s defensive instincts and physicality does not give a guard an inch to breathe. It will be interesting to see how SGA handles that defensive pressure and whether he can still be effective when there is an All-Defence talent in his jersey.
- Ingram - Brandon Ingram has started the season really well for New Orleans with the absence of Zion Williamson. When Williamson went down before the season, there was a huge chunk in the scoring load and Ingram has done his best to fill this gap. Brandon Ingram has looked like an All-NBA talent during the first sixteen games of the season. Ingram’s growth has also come at a time when New Orleans need his consistent scoring, the lineup has suffered a lot of injuries and Ingram’s points have been a constant in a shuffling team. Ingram is currently averaging 26/7/4 while shooting 43% from deep on a decent volume. His ability as an isolation scorer has become more reliable and he has been a release valve in the offence for New Orleans when the possession breaks down and stagnates. It finally feels like Ingram understands what he is capable of and how far his career can go. The move to Louisiana has been a positive for Ingram as it has allowed him to mature as a player away from the Lakers media circus and organisation which could easily be a Game of Thrones family with the level of drama, dysfunction and nepotism which surrounds the El Segundo practice facility.
- JJ - The Pelicans did not make many free agency splashes but they brought in one of the best shooters in the NBA in the form of JJ Redick. Redick, who has been productive on play-off teams for his entire career, is a valuable addition because of how he gets points. Redick is brilliant in curling off screens and moving off-ball to get looks from deep, this ability to space the floor strains the defence as it requires a defence to watch him at all times. One look away from the defence gives Redick a half-second of space and that is all he needs. Chris Paul will likely guard Redick and it is imperative for Paul to beat JJ to his spots. Chris doing this regularly during the game will disrupt JJ’s rhythm and force him out of his comfort zone. Paul has plenty of first-hand experience of Redick’s scoring abilities from their time as Clippers’ team-mates, this will be useful knowledge to have when it comes to slowing JJ down.
Nerlens Noel has been efficient in his role as a back-up rim running big man and a question surrounding Nerlens would be his trade value? Noel has a 1+1 contract which means that he has a player option for the second year. In theory, Noel could opt into this option at the end of the season but it is highly unlikely. The 2020 free agency class is relatively shallow in terms of talent and quality reserves will be difficult to find on the open market. This will mean that a player like Nerlens, with his ability to be an efficient reserve big will be in demand.
It would be wise for the Thunder to explore trading Noel in the season before he hits free agency. In free agency, Noel could sign elsewhere and the Thunder would get nothing for him. It makes sense for the Thunder to get value while they can. Noel’s skill-set as an efficient scorer (64% from the field this season, the highest of his career) and defensive activity means that he is a valuable trade chip. In a post-Warriors, size is no longer under-valued. Both the Lakers and 76ers have complete 7ft big men and a roster will need big bodies who can size up with these potential title contenders. I think that Presti would be very fair in asking for a protected first-round pick for a player of Nerlens’ ability. If the Thunder got a future first for Nerlens, I would take that deal instantly. It is another asset to deal with down the line.