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December 20: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Phoenix Suns - Preview & Game Thread

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OKC have won four of their last six games

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City play a game against Phoenix on Friday night and this game has play-off implications. Phoenix are contending for a play-off berth the same as Oklahoma City is currently doing. It will be interesting to see how Oklahoma City play against a team who are roughly at the same level in terms of winning this season. The game starts at 8:00 (EST) and it is a chance for the Thunder to build a winning streak after beating Chicago and Memphis. The Thunder scraped victories in those two games and OKC will be looking to win this game comfortably instead of scrapping out a win. Phoenix has started surprisingly well this season but have recently hit a four game skid as the team enters the middle portion of the season.

Three Points to Note for the Thunder:

  1. Nerlens Noel’s Lob Game - Nerlens Noel feasted against the Grizzlies the other night using the lob game which was hugely successful last year. Last season, Nerlens Noel was a frequent lob target for Russell Westbrook when Noel ran with the starters, Noel would elevate and dunk the ball from ridiculous angles. The same action would occur with the reserve unit, the Noel-Schroder pick and roll would often result in a lot of lobs for Noel as defenders had to guard against the threat of Schroder’s floater which then in turn opened the space for the lob. Dennis’ floater is deceptive in the way that he throws the shot up, it has a trajectory that is halfway between a shot and a pass to Nerlens Noel. It caused confusion for defenders last year as they were torn between guarding the lob or coming out onto the guard. The Thunder went back to this action against Memphis as Nerlens was found on lob attempts consistently by both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. The type of offensive scheming could be incredibly valuable going forward in terms of adding another wrinkle to the offence. Defences would have to be aware of the lob as it is an easy bucket for Noel to finish.
  2. Thunder Defence - Oklahoma City did well to come back and beat the Grizzlies after being down by twenty four points. The comeback victory is impressive as it did seem like the game was out of reach for the Thunder however questions need to be asked about the team’s defence. The Thunder gave up 122 points to a Memphis which is currently ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency. Oklahoma City need to get better at making sure that the defence is good for all forty eight minutes instead of turning up the intensity for just the second half. OKC will eventually get stung by a better team if this trend continues, the team will not be able to continually string together improbable comebacks. The issue in the Memphis was that Oklahoma City’s perimeter defence was shaky, the rotations onto shooters were loose. There were more than a few occasions where Memphis players got clean looks from three. OKC have to take these good shots away from the opposing team by rotating more cleanly and quickly.
  3. Gallinari Pick and Pop - The Thunder have primarily used Gallinari as a perimeter threat within the offensive scheme. The scheme designed by Billy Donovan is dependent on a steady diet of hand-offs and variations on the 1-5 pick and roll. The actions utilised by Donovan are simple and rely on the players to make the right play consistently. While these actions work really well, the offence could be more dynamic if the Thunder took advantage of Gallinari’s savviness in the pick and pop game. Danilo is an efficient shooter from outside and the mid-range which means that he consistently knocks down looks from this range especially if he has separation from the defender tracking him. Oklahoma City used this action against the Grizzlies the other night and it worked unbelievably well as Danilo popped out for open fourteen foot jumper. Gallinari is an efficient shooter from this part of the floor, he is currently shooting 45.6% on all attempts between 16ft to the three-point land. This could be successful against Phoenix on Friday night as the Suns have Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric at the power forward spot, these players are not brilliant defenders by any means.

Suns’ Light Rays:

  1. Injury Decimation - The Suns are currently going through an injury crisis and will likely be understaffed on Friday’s game. DeAndre Ayton is suffering an ankle injury, Devin Booker is questionable with a fore-arm injury while rotation players like Tyler Johnson are also unlikely to play. This a layup for the Thunder, a game against an injury-ravaged team who do not have any of their star players available for the match. This is also the type of game that the Thunder would lose in the past, it is imperative that the team comes out fighting to start the game so that the lingering history does not re-surface.
  2. Monty Williams - Monty Williams is a person who has a lot of history with the Thunder organisation. Coach Monty was the associate head coach for Oklahoma City during Billy Donovan’s rookie season and built strong ties within the organisation and the community. The players liked and respected Coach Williams for his perspective on the game and his willingness to listen to the players. As a member of the community, Monty Williams and his family were active in charity work around Oklahoma City. Coach left the Thunder due to personal tragedy and a need to be around family at a time of distress, I hope that the fans at Chesapeake can give Monty the warmest welcome possible.

Random Side-Note:

Memphis as a team have a fair few promising prospects, the one player who caught my eye the other night was Dillon Brooks. Brooks is a third year player whose contract runs out at the end of the season, Memphis have matching rights in free agency. I liked Brooks’ efficient scoring from the field and his ability to create his own shot, that type of shot creation could be valuable for the Thunder’s second unit. Brooks is a marginal NBA athlete but he has managed to counter his lack of athleticism by being savvy with his game, he knows what he is physically capable of and does not try to do too much. It might seem like the Thunder do not need another forward but we need to be aware that Presti may deal a forward like Diallo or Ferguson as a complementary piece in a trade involving Gallinari or Paul. Those small deals are invaluable in terms of making sure contracts match and both players are assets that could feasibly fit within a team’s rotation. I am not saying that the Thunder should pro-actively pursue signing Brooks, I am saying that Oklahoma City should keep an eye on him during free agency. Memphis has a lot of young players and an older young player (Brooks is 23) may be discarded in favour of development of players with more upside.