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December 1: Oklahoma City @ New Orleans Pelicans - Preview & Game Thread

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Oklahoma will be looking to beat New Orleans again

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City will play the Pelicans again but the venue of the game changes to the Smoothie King Centre in Louisiana. This will be a one game road trip before the Indiana Pacers come to town on Wednesday. The fixture starts at 5:00 (EST) and OKC will look to win against the Pelicans for the second time in two games. Oklahoma City won their previous game behind the contributions of their bench unit. Abdel Nader and Dennis Schroder combined for forty four points which were crucial in terms of securing the victory when the starters mis-fired. This will be the first game in a three-game home stretch for the Pelicans as they face the Dallas Mavericks two days after they play the Thunder.

Three Points to Note for the Thunder:

  1. Terminader - Abdel Nader was really important for the Thunder in terms of securing a win against New Orleans. It was a tight game that decided by just two possessions which meant that Nader’s contributions were only more valuable. Nader scored nineteen points off the bench on accurate shooting and it seemed to indicate a different approach to the game for Nader. Abdel usually tends to shoot the ball whenever he receives the rock but over the last two games, it looks like Nader is picking his spots more.

He is not forcing shots and working within the flow of offence. This has been important for the team as it means that the offensive rhythm is not disrupted by one player just chucking shots up. The other positive for the Thunder is that Abdel contributed well during actual minutes that mattered instead of being inserted for just garbage time. Providing that Nader can continue this steady, reliable production he can be another valuable contributor for the Thunder off the bench.

It has been a welcome story for Abdel who has often faced questions about his ability to play at the NBA level. Nader is a marginal athlete and his decision-making can be pretty poor at times. Nader has put a lot of work in during the season to improve his game. Erik Horne of The Athletic had a good story the other day regarding Nader’s work ethic. It has been reported that he comes to the practice facility to get extra work in when the Thunder have scheduled rest days. Chris Paul also spoke about Nader’s performance saying that it stems from the fact that Abdel is ‘letting the game come to him’ instead of over-thinking on offence.

2. Away Form - The Thunder’s away form has been terrible this season as the team has only won game away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena. That win came against the Warriors in San Francisco and meant that the away record stands at 1-7 with losses against the Clippers, Rockets and both LA teams. It seems a like weird to say but the record flatters the Thunder. Oklahoma City struggled against the Warriors and would have lost that game against a team which did not consist of fringe NBA players, rookies and G-League players. The issues with the Thunder on the road stems from the team’s lack of consistency. When OKC head away from the ‘Peake’, the ball stops moving on offence and defensive breakdowns are more common. A team like the Thunder who do not have a top-level superstar on the roster cannot play like this, inconsistencies will kill a team away from home. The Thunder has to play hard and smart for forty eight minutes to have any chance of winning away games, Oklahoma City cannot afford to have lapses such as the putrid third quarters.

The third quarter has been an issue for a number of years and needs to be addressed this season. Oklahoma could survive terrible third quarters in the Westbrook era as they always had two guys who could elevate their play in the fourth quarter and steal wins away from the other team. The Thunder cannot afford to do this as they do not have that level of talent, Shai Gilgeous Alexander could be a top-level player in the future but he is still a young guy finding his way in the league. The coaching staff needs to emphasise consistent play throughout the game and especially in the problem quarter. It would be wise for Billy Donovan to change his half-time talk so that it focuses on starting the second half quickly instead of turning up just for the fourth quarter. It is evident that Donovan’s team talk during the interval is not good enough as players come out of the locker-room flat.

3. SGA’s Slump - Shai Gilgeous Alexander has played really well to start his Thunder career but he has hit a slump over the last three games. Alexander is averaging 11.0 points, 3.7 assists, 2.7 rebounds on 37.1% shooting from the field. The efficiency in his game has disappeared but the Thunder should not be overly worried. Young guards who create a decent portion of offence will go through slumps as defences key in on them. It is simply a case of Alexander becoming comfortable with the added defensive pressure and learning how to raise his game so that it consistently beats the good defence. Donovan Mitchell went through a similar learning process in his sophomore year where defences focused on him way more than his rookie season and Mitchell struggled to generate offence as efficiently as he did previously. The key for the Alexander is to resist the temptation to force offence, he needs to remain calm and let the offensive rhythm come back to him. Forcing shots in the hope of finding a rhythm is not the right way to go about things, it makes the Thunder much easier to guard

Pelicans’ Points:

  1. New Orleans’ Perimeter dependency - New Orleans get 38.8% of their points from behind the arc, this ranks second in the league when it comes to points contribution from deep. New Orleans runs a lot of offence out of the perimeter due to the fact that they have a corp of capable shooters who can consistently knock down shots on good efficiency. The stand-out shooters from the group would be Brandon Ingram and JJ Redick but both Josh Hart and Jrue Holiday are quality shooters. The proficiency with the long ball is hard to guard and will strain the Thunder’ defensive rotations. It is imperative that the team keeps talking on defence and ensure that New Orleans do not get driving lanes for easy buckets. The ideal result on each defensive possession needs to be side to side passing without the defence being punctured, Oklahoma City wants New Orleans to be out of rhythm and unable to generate good looks.
  2. Speed Demons - New Orleans plays an uptempo style which ranks fifth in the NBA in terms of pace. New Orleans averages 104.79 possessions used per game which is indicative of their style of play. NOLA’s offensive system is dependent on getting early shots in the clock and moving the ball quickly. The Pelicans do not spend time setting up an offensive action, the team quickly shifts into a pistol set or pick and roll before their opponent can set up defensively. It is a simple offensive scheme but it works well because it is consistently executed well. This particular offensive system is derived from the D’Antoni Suns of the 2000s which preached ‘Seven Seconds or Less’. Gentry was a lead assistant for D’Antoni and it is clear that the influence of those teams preside over the Pelicans today. Oklahoma City needs to be aware of the pace of the game, they cannot get drawn into a fast-paced game as it is not their strength. The Thunder’s strength comes from Chris Paul methodically setting up the offence and executing an offensive action to a high level.

Random Side-note:

Chris Paul’s minutes have been managed carefully by the Thunder this season with Donovan being keen to keep Paul around the thirty minute mark. The benefit of this decision is clear, it keeps Paul fresher for long and staves off the possibility of injuries occurring to a player who has struggled with injury in the past. The managing of minutes is a positive for the Thunder as it has created respite for both Steven Adams and Chris Paul who have gone through gruelling seasons in the past.