November 7: Oklahoma City Thunder @ San Antonio Spurs

The Thunder meet the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T as part of one game getaway road trip. The game starts at 8:30 (EST) and OKC will be looking to get to .500 for the first time this season. The Thunder closed out their homestead with a record of 2-1 and will be looking to carry forward momentum into a tough away game. The Thunder have lost their previous two away games and getting a first victory away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena will be important in building confidence for the younger players on the road. The Spurs have started the season with a level of inconsistency that is uncharacteristic for a Coach Popovich team. The Spurs are 4-3 on the season but the record does not tell the entire story. The Spurs have made a lot of little, unforced errors which have meant that the usually airtight defence has suffered.

Three Points to Note for the Thunder:

1. The Thunder have done much better in tight situations compared to the first few games of the season. In the Orlando and New Orleans games, the Thunder's offence has looked a lot more efficient when it matters most. The team offensive game has not stagnated like it did during the first five games of the season. This improvement is reflected by the Thunder outscoring the Magic 14-9 in the final 5:39 minutes of the game the other night. The Thunder managed to get quality looks in pick and roll actions involving Chris Paul and Steven Adams. Billy Donovan spoke about the offensive improvement in the post game media scrum and stated that he felt that the team has improved due to the team getting 'pretty good looks" in closing situations. This was true against Orlando and this needs to be true against San Antonio.

2. I know that I have spoke a lot about Shai Gilgeous Alexander during the opening stretch of the season but I need to talk about him again. His scoring has been efficient but it is the way that SGA has been playing during the first few games of the season. He surveys the court with a veteran's confidence, he knows the action he wants for every single possession and runs the set to a high level. This is totally different from the usual young point guard expectations, usually young point guards turn the ball too much and do not have pass timing down perfectly. Gilgeous-Alexander's passing works very well because he understands the combination of angles, timing and pace in order to get the bal into a great position for the receiver. It is almost like SGA views the game in slow motion.

3. Nerlens Noel has looked much-improved on defence and this has been a key reason for the Thunder being better on defence this season. In the previous season, Nerlens was a good rim protector because of his activity and length which made it hard for defences to score against him. It did also mean that Nerlens was caught out of position on defence when he misread the offensive situation. Noel has been better in terms of establishing good positions on defence and contesting shots using his mental ability rather than just his body. Over the last few games, Noel has been less hungry for highlight worthy blocks which has led to more consistency from Nerlens as a rim protector. He has been better at disrupting offensive rhythm and contesting shots with greater regularity. He is not getting caught out on defence and has been a reliable presence around the rim. The spillover effect of Nerlens improving defensively has meant that he has become much more valuable as a trade chip. There are a decent number of contending teams including Denver and the Clippers who could use a centre who can protect the rim effectively while also providing a vertical threat on offence.

Spurs' Singles:

1. LaMarcus Aldridge has been inconsistent to start the season for the Spurs. His scoring and rebound are down from the previous season and he has not provided the usual steady production which have become a bedrock of the Spurs' offence. San Antonio have relied on a mix of Aldridge post-ups and mid-range jumpers to keep the offence ticking over when all of the other options are struggling to get a good look. Without this production, the Spurs do not have that steady option who can get a bucket, it has meant that the team operates more democratically. It could be that Derrick White or Patty Mills going off for thirty points instead of the usual twenty something points from Aldridge.

2. The return of Dejounte Murray has been a boon for the Spurs' defence this season. The Spurs' defence has been inconsistent to start the season but Dejounte Murray has improved the defence compared to the previous season. The Spurs had a 110.5 Defensive Net Rating last season whereas this season the team has averaged 105.4 Defensive Net Rating through the first seven games. Murray's individual Defensive Net Rating stands at 97.0. There is correlation between the Spurs' improvement on defence and Murray's defensive impact corroborated by the eye test. Murray visibly fights through every screen and hounds the ball-handler into making mistakes. The length and height that Murray has for the guard spots means that he is incredibly versatile and creates issues for the opposing team's primary option. He forced Damian Lillard into a rough shooting night against the Blazers by constantly applying pressure on defence. Murray will be a tough test for SGA, how does Alexander deal with an All-Defensive Team guard?

Important Sidenote:

In the game against Orlando, the Thunder honoured the lives lost in the Oklahoma bombings with their new jerseys. The new jerseys have little symbols which are dedicated to those lost and also the National Memorial that commemorate those who have passed away. It is a fitting tribute for the families of the deceased and also to the state of Oklahoma. Everybody pulled together in the moments after the tragedy, the fabric of the state was totally understood. A civic responsibility to each other and a togetherness in the face of adversity.

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