After a double digit victory against Phoenix on Friday Night, the Los Angeles Clippers come to town and Paul George returns to Oklahoma for the first time since his trade to the Clips during the summer. The Thunder have finally made it back to 0.500 and will look to build on this record against LA who were stunned by Russell Westbrook and the Rockets in their last game. OKC come into this game with a lot of momentum as the team has won seven out of their last ten games, this is the type of production which is necessary for securing a play-off berth. The game starts at 7:00 (EST) and will have many points of interest to focus on during the game.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Three Guard Lineup - At the start of the season, Billy Donovan made a bold decision in closing games with three point guards in the lineup instead of using a player like Terrance Ferguson who more naturally fits the wing positions. The decision invited a lot of discourse as it was expected that the Thunder would be a poor defensive unit due to that lineup’s lack of size. The opposite has been true, the three guard unit of Paul, Schroder and Gilgeous Alexander has been impressive in the minutes played together. The net rating of the unit is a whopping 24.7 which far out-performs lineups that have played a comparable number of minutes. These numbers mean nothing without context and in this particular example, the context is very interesting. The expectation that the offence would improve with three guards is completely true but there was a belief that defensive slippage was likely. Terrance Ferguson is an adept defender and dropping him from the starting lineup in favour of Dennis Schroder, a player who is small for the 2 and has not historically been a good defender. The three guard lineup has a defensive rating of 98.3 which would rank 9th on the Thunder roster for all three man units that have played a minimum of one hundred minutes. The stout defence has come from Dennis’ defensive improvement, Schroder visibly tries on defence and makes himself big against the opposition. The numbers backs up the eye test, Dennis is 16th in points allowed per one hundred possessions.
- Shaides of Brilliance - Shai Gilgeous Alexander has been a favourite in these previews for his play but I have to talk about him again. He was outstanding against the Phoenix Suns as he scored a cool thirty two points on efficient shooting. Alexander consistently got to the rim and finished the possession using every ounce of skill. SGA is so good at using his long arms to lift the ball over the defender and into the rim, he does not seem fazed by the big man in the paint defending the rim with zeal. Shai had a career high and it seemed effortless on his part, I do not think that it would be unrealistic for him to beat this total again before the season is over. It will be important for Shai to carry over the hot shooting into a game against the Clippers as LA has three All-Defence quality players. I expect Doc Rivers to mix up the defensive coverages and put a combination of George and Beverley on Alexander. Shai will need to be comfortable under pressure as Patrick Beverley is a pitbull who does not give his target an inch of breathing room, he constantly stays tight to his man and forces mistakes. George applies pressure in a different way, his enveloping figure forces a guard to think about angles. The game becomes a chess match rather than playing in their usual way. Alexander cannot be baited into Beverley’s games and he cannot allow himself to start over-thinking the game, he needs to remain calm and focused.
- Delay of Game - Technical Fouls have become commonplace over the last few weeks since Chris Paul won a game for the Thunder as he called out for a delay of game on Jordan Bell who entered the game with an untucked jersey. Since the game against the Timberwolves, delays of game have become a focal point for NBA referees. This call is made a lot more than the past, referees are actively enforcing the rule instead of letting minor offences slide. There was a degree of irony against the Suns when Deonte Burton was called for a delay of game due to an untucked jersey, the Thunder were being punished for a rule that Paul noticed. It must be said that Chris Paul started this wildfire but I am not too sure how happy he is with the rule being enforced in this manner.
Los Angeles Leads:
- The Return of Paul George - Paul George will come back to Oklahoma after forcing a trade away from OKC in the summer so that he could form a dynamic duo with Kawhi Leonard. George comes into this game after the Clippers lost to the Rockets at the hands of Russell Westbrook, George's former running mate. Although Paul George had memorable moments in Oklahoma, the team-mates triple-double game being the stand-out, the ultimate result of his tenure in OKC is somewhat frustrating. The Thunder were first round outs two seasons in a row with George being injured in both play-off situations. PG13 has previously spoken about his fondness for Oklahoma but I do doubt his sincerity as he made similar comments about Indiana before requesting a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. I am not sure how fans will choose to receive Paul George on Sunday night, it is entirely possible that fans will express their displeasure that George’s departure brought a swift end to Thunder contention.
- Sweet Lou and Trezl - Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have been two of the Clippers foundation pieces over the last few years. Williams and Harrell were acquired in the Paul trade and witnessed the departure of Blake Griffin and then Tobias Harris. The Clippers have been all change but the constant has been Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell getting buckets. Sweet Lou has always been a world class sixth man, I think the award should be re-named the Williams-Crawford Award after his retirement, but his chemistry with Harrell has elevated his play. Both players know what each other is thinking in pick and roll situations and make the decisions to create the best possible shot. It has made both players better, Harrell went from being an energy guy on the Rockets bench to being a talented centre in line for a big contract in 2020. Williams has played at an All-Star level since joining the Clippers and that is no exaggeration, the game goes to him when the Clippers need buckets late in games.
Random Side Note:
The Thunder have always been strong in the fashion game, the team has comfortably been one of the most sartorially-literate teams in the league since its inception. Russell Westbrook carried that mantle during his decade with the team as he wore wacky and eclectic clothing that no regular mortal would wear. SGA is the guy to carry on the high fashion but Chris Paul’s taste in clothing should not be ignored. Before the season started, Paul purchased custom, tailored suits for every player on the team as a way of building team unity. The results of that were a roster that looked fresh and made serious waves on social media. The player who made the biggest impact was the player who cared about fashion least. Steven Adams generally wears some form of shorts and sandals, he does not care about looking good. On Friday night, he wore a suit that made him look like a strongman out of Peaky Blinders especially with the flat cap perched on his head. While Adams is a professional basketball player, you could easily imagine him messing up gangsters in post-war Small Heath.