Oklahoma City head north of the border for their first and only time this season to play against the Toronto Raptors. This will be last game in a short East Coast swing where the Thunder edged out the Hornets and will look to beat Toronto, one of the premier teams in the Eastern Conference. The game comes as the second night of a back to back for the Raptors as they play Boston tonight, a rematch of the Christmas game between the two sides. The game starts at 6:00 (EST) and it represents another chance to prove that these Thunder is capable of matching up against teams that have had a lot of success in the league over the last year or so. Toronto lost Kawhi but players like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have been exceptional in stepping up and filling the void.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Defensive Rebounding - Oklahoma City did not do well in terms of defensive rebounding against the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets out-rebounded by the Thunder as they got seventeen offensive rebounds which created numerous second chance opportunities. Oklahoma City cannot allow this many offensive rebounds to land in the hands of the opposition as it puts added pressure on the defence and does not allow Thunder players to re-set mentally. The main issue with not securing defensive rebounds is that it is difficult to play two or three straight possessions with flawless defence, eventually the other team will find a break through and get a bucket. It is painfully obvious that defensive rebounding secures the ball and stops the opposition from getting any further scoring opportunities on that possession. The point that needs to be emphasises by the coaching staff is that rebounding is a team effort, every player needs to work hard to grab the board whether that be boxing out or tipping the ball to a better-placed team-mate. Oklahoma City cannot solely rely on the big man to get boards as that strategy places unnecessary stress on one person’s shoulders.
- Ferguson’s Fouls - Terrance Ferguson is a pretty good defender for the Thunder in terms of providing an option who can feasibly guard the other team’s best player on any given night. Ferguson’s lateral quickness and length makes it hard for a player to beat him off the dribble, the only glaring flaw in Terrance’s defence is that he fouls too much. Ferguson is currently averaging 3.4 fouls per game which is increase from last season, it is usual for foul rate to go down as a young player’s career progresses. The player becomes experienced at the NBA level and therefore avoids silly fouls. Ferguson still gets his hand trapped in the cookie jar too often for my liking and this could be an aspect of his game for him to work on. The effect of Ferguson being foul-happy is that the opposing team will get into the penalty much faster and get free points at the line consistently. The other effect of Ferguson fouling too much is that he cannot play at that elite defensive level for forty eight minutes for fear that he gets called for a foul which ejects him from the game. The propensity for personal fouls will be taken advantage of by Toronto who have savvy players like Kyle Lowry who are adept at drawing fouls.
- Mid-Range Money - Oklahoma City have been efficient from mid-range in an offensive quirk that zags with the rest of the league. The mid-range jumper has largely been abandoned by the rest of the league as it is considered an inefficient look in comparison to three-pointers or layups. It is one of the reasons why many teams take a large volume of three-pointers, these mid-range looks were substituted for outside shots. The aim for coaching staffs around the league is to find the most efficient shot diet for their team as that is a key factor in designing a high-powered offensive scheme. Billy’s embrace of the mid-range has been surprising as his coaching philosophies were designed to remove all non-paint twos in favour of other shots during the Russell Westbrook Era. Both Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul have been empowered by the schematic shift, both players have shot the ball well from this range. Paul is shooting 54.9% on 3.3 FGAs from the mid-range whereas Schroder’s shooting is marginally less efficient at 52.3% on slightly more volume (3.6 FGAs). Out of a pool of players who average more than 3.0 field goals attempted from mid-range, Schroder and Paul rank third and fourth out of thirty four players. The Thunder have found efficient offence from a zone of the floor where most teams avoid like the plague, it is also somewhat refreshing to see a different type of offence outside of threes-layups.
- Player Development Factory - The Raptors have rebounded well from an injury-hit stretch by leaning on players who have been developed within their organisation. The Raptors’ G-League team, the 905 has been an important development stage for Toronto in terms of building quality players who can contribute in the league. The most notable products out of the 905 would be Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet but the talent pipeline has not stopped flowing. The most recent graduates from the Raptors’ G-League team have done well in filling in the gaps created by the injuries to the roster. Chris Boucher and Terrence Davis have both been serviceable role players despite both players being undrafted. It is a testament to the Raptors organisation that they consistently developed unfancied and unknown players into being NBA players. This is the type of G-League team that the Oklahoma City Thunder should use for inspiration in regards to the Oklahoma City Blue. There are a good number of transferrable ideas, the most useful idea would probably be Toronto ensuring coaching synergy between the affiliate team and the senior side. The 905 run a very similar playbook to Nick Nurse’s side which means that G-League players can be plugged straight into the senior side with limited teething issues as it is scheming they are used to.
- Serge Ibaka - Serge Ibaka was an Oklahoma cornerstone, he is one of the few players who came to the franchise on ground zero. Ibaka was a favourite of many Thunder fans for his sturdy defence and stunning blocks, Serge’s athleticism pre-injury was something to behold. In his last few years with the Thunder, Ibaka rounded out his game so that there would be a consistent jumper in his arsenal. Nick Nurse has taken that versatile skillset and applied in a highly effective way. Serge is used as a centre for the Raptors which means that Toronto can have five floor-spacers on the court at any on moment. Moreover, Serge’s intelligence is a powerful tool for Nurse as he drifts into space and erases any defensive mistakes made by the guards. That versatility made Ibaka invaluable in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors as he scored efficiently and prevented the Warriors from getting easy shots. This is the first time that he plays Oklahoma City as a worthy champion and as a fan, I am happy that Serge finally got what he deserved. The ring had eluded him for so many years and he had suffered so much heartache along the way. His growth as a player and a leader deserved a ring and he got one with Toronto.
A few weeks ago, Royce Young of ESPN wrote an intriguing long-form article about free throw defence. That phrase is somewhat contradictory, it seems impossible to defend free throws as it is a shot from the line where defence is not allowed by the referee. Young’s writings detailed that players used a variety of ways to defend the free throw and engage in mental battles with the shooter. Nerlens Noel’s free throw defence was huge for the Thunder against the Charlotte as PJ Washington stepped to the line with the game on the line. Washington, a former team-mate of Shai at Kentucky, is a 70% free throw shooter. Converting two free throws would be light work for PJ but Nerlens’ defence made it hard. Noel flicked a towel hard downwards which momentarily distracted Washington. Washington subsequently missed the free throw and Oklahoma City went on to win the game. This defence is not strictly legal and would usually be punished with a technical foul but the referee did not notice Nerlens’ antics.