Oklahoma City comes to Denver after a close loss in Sacramento and with a few days rest in their legs. OKC played an okay game in Sacramento where the team did well defensively but slipped on offence, Shai and Gallo had pretty quiet evenings by their usual high standards.
The game against Denver is another test against top-level opposition, and the Thunder need to be able to prove that they can hang with the best teams in the West if the play-offs are to be a viable target. Denver have not played well recently; the Nuggets went 1-3 on an East Coast swing before handling Portland at home last night.
The tilt starts at 9:00 (EST) and will be the final away game before a five game home-stand in which the Thunder will play a softer portion of the schedule. The only notable game out of this Christmas stretch would be the game against the Clippers, Paul George’s return game to OKC.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
The Thunder turned the ball over too many times against the Sacramento Kings — 16 total — which led to the Kings getting easy transition scores. This is the worst type of bucket that a defence can give up, as it is wholly avoidable providing that the team takes care of the ball on offence.
The Thunder have averaged 14.2 turnovers a game on the season which is lower than the average NBA team. Oklahoma City are 20th in the number of turnovers committed per game which indicates that the team takes care of the ball well on offence, a departure from previous years when Oklahoma City would turn the ball over a lot trying to hit the home-run play.
OKC have also done well in limiting transition buckets, as teams only score 15.8 points per night on Thunder turnovers — this would put the team seventh in the league in terms of defence on these types of shots. It is important for Oklahoma to be vigilant against laziness on offence; the Thunder cannot afford to give points away through their own mistakes.
2. Nerlens Noel
Noel has been an important reserve for the Thunder this season and his value stems from his ability as an interior presence. Noel is comfortable defending at the rim and prevents efficient scoring in this area due to his length and athleticism.
Nerlens can get caught out of position occasionally but these lapses in his game have lessened. Noel’s defensive consistency has meant his minutes have increased and the Thunder can afford to manage Steven Adams’ minutes better. Noel’s defensive improvements and his ability to be effective with low usage on offence means that he will be a valuable trade chip for the Thunder.
Noel has an expiring deal and it is likely that he will not re-sign with the Thunder, as Oklahoma City does not have the cap space to pay Noel the type of contract that his production warrants. Noel is likely to command $8-10M per year in a weak free agency class and I do not doubt that he will have multiple interested parties. Noel only makes $1.6M, which means that he can be matched with any other veteran minimum player in the league in terms of constructing a trade.
I personally like the idea of trading Noel to the Rockets for Nene Hilario and loosened pick protections. The picks traded to the Thunder are top four protected in 2024 and 2026 when there is a real possibility that the Rockets could be bad and it would be worth the Thunder’s while to have these picks unprotected.
3. Abdel Nader
Nader has quietly shot a career high in three-point field goal efficiency. Nader is shooting 46.7% on 2.6 attempts per game, which is significantly higher than the efficiency or volume that he averaged for the Celtics. It is highly unlikely that Abdel can sustain this shooting percentage, but it would take one cold night from the floor to bring his efficiency numbers in line with more normal figures. Despite the potential for regression, Nader should continue to take these looks and could probably take even more shots from deep. I would say that anything above 40% from three is highly efficiency and is a good shot to take. N
ader should try and get his three-point attempts up to around four attempts per game, an increased volume without totally sacrificing efficiency. Players who can fill it up from deep efficiently are always valuable to a team as they are reliable floor-spreaders and consistent offensive options. Nader’s ball-handling matters less when he can knock down threes at an efficient rate. Abdel Nader has developed a lot over the last couple of months, he started the season as a fringe player and is now cemented within the rotation, he has taken advantage of the opportunity presented to him when Ferguson and Diablo were injured.
Nader’s improvement and noticeable comfort as the starting small forward for the Thunder does present serious questions for Sam Presti? Nader’s contract runs out this summer and his performances this season would certainly warrant a new deal, the only question would be the role of Terrance Ferguson going forward. Providing that Nader re-signed on a decent sized contract i.e. $6m per year, there would be an expectation that he features heavily in the Thunder’s plans going forward. This would mean that either Ferguson or Diallo will have less minutes going forward, two players who have made positive impacts so far.
1. Denver Injuries
Paul Millsap, the starting power forward for Denver, is questionable for the game tonight. Millsap has been managing a right quadriceps strain and it is unknown whether he will feature against the Thunder.
2. Jerami Grant
This is the first time that Jerami Grant will play against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team where he spent three seasons growing his game. Grant is one of the few unqualified development successes for a Thunder staff who have struggled with player development over previous years. Grant came to Oklahoma as part of the Ersan Ilyasova trade and started to round out his game. Grant was a hyper-athletic three man when he came from Philly and left the Thunder as a Swiss army knife on defence who could space the floor effectively. His defensive talents are used differently in Denver, he no longer plays centre and does a lot of his work in space.
The Thunder have been pesky on defence which has meant that the Thunder is a difficult team to score on. OKC have been a solid unit this season and that largely stems from Chris Paul’s leadership. Paul plays hard on defence and therefore every other player feels that they have to match that same intensity. It has meant that the Thunder have got effort from Dennis Schroder on defence, a player who is not renowned for his ability to guard another player. Dennis does still have a few issues in terms of decision-making and he cannot be a positive on defence due to his physical limitations but he has been better. It is one of the reasons why Billy closes with the three guard lineup, it is surprisingly effective at stopping scores. Oklahoma City need to replicate the stout defence against Jamal Murray who is an extremely dynamic point guard who can get hot and stay hot throughout the game.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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