Oklahoma City end the year at home after a fruitful road-trip where the Thunder went 2-0 against the Hornets and Raptors. Oklahoma City have been hot over the last ten games as they have won seven games despite playing serious contenders like Toronto and the Los Angeles Clippers. It is pretty clear that tanking for draft picks are off the menu and that playing for the play-offs should be the team’s objective going forward. Oklahoma City are only three games back from Utah in the sixth seed but Utah have an easy run of games in January where they play sub 0.500 teams like Chicago and Phoenix. The Thunder cannot get complacent and overlook the game on New Years Eve against the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas have been very good this season and will be another difficult test for the Thunder despite the Mavericks coming into this game off a loss to the Lakers. The game starts at 8:00 (EST) and will be a mouth-watering match-up between two young prodigies in the form of Luka Doncic and Shai Gilgeous Alexander.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Canada’s Finest - The Thunder walked into the ScotiaBank Arena under-manned and without firepower. Both Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder were ruled out with injuries which made a tough task harder, Toronto are one of those teams who are well-coached and play hard no matter the injuries affecting their roster. In Canada, Oklahoma City got quality production out of the two Canadians on the Thunder’s roster as they balled out in their home nation. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a Hamiltonian, was again brilliant as he scored thirty two points as he led the Thunder to a victory on the road. SGA knocked down a tough floater which won the game. His ability to create space using his footwork has been important for the Thunder generating offence efficiently and it was on display against Toronto as he consistently beat the defence. Shai has been hugely impressive over the first act of the season and has beaten all expectations that were held before the season. The other Canadian on the roster came into the league through a different route. Luguentz Dort came from Montreal via the G-League and Arizona and he displayed why Billy trusts him on defence. Dort’s defence was important in the closing stanza of the game as he sealed off the paint and did not allow his man to create any offence at all. His defence meant that the Raptors ran two straight possessions where the guard dribbled the ball a lot without creating a good shot. The road taken to the league could not be more different for Dort or Alexander but each player was excellent against Toronto, I expect this same intensity against the Mavericks.
- Point God - Chris Paul had a brilliant night against the Raptors where he almost had a triple-double of 25/11/8 but it was how he went about business which was the stand-out aspect from his performance. Paul is primarily a pass-first point guard who looks to run the offence before getting his points on the board. This aspect of his game came to the fore against the Raptors as he dissected defensive coverages to get his team-mates clean looks. The other aspect of his game is Paul’s ability to get a bucker regardless of the situation. This was hugely important for the Thunder as Paul got timely buckets consistently which dragged Oklahoma back into the tie. The most impressive basket was his final make from the field where he shed the defence and dropped back into an open mid-ranger. It is pretty amazing to see Chris perform like this as the lingering injuries he suffered through this time last year made it seem like his time as a top-level point guard was over. He was written off by everybody and a year later, he delved into his bag to pull out a prime Point God game. In a some sense, he went into the Father Prime territory that his good friend, Dwyane Wade used to occupy. Despite his age, Paul is still capable of balling out and winning games. His ability to create good looks for everybody, I am certain he could get good looks for Mitch McGary, has been important in the Thunder over-achieving in relation to the pre-season predictions held by many people.
- Adams’ Free Throws - Steven Adams’ issues at the charity stripe are well-documented, over his career he has struggled to knock down looks from this range efficiently. At the start of the season, Steven’s misses at the free throw were pretty painful as a fan because he looked fearful of free throws instead of being his usual jovial self. These negative feelings likely contributed to Adams doing poorly from the line. The last five games have been a different story as Steven has knocked nine free throws out of sixteen attempts. This is a 56.3% clip from an area which has been troublesome for Funaki. 56.3% is serviceable, it can be better but Billy Donovan will likely take this mark happily for the rest of the season. The reason for the free throw improvement is down to Steven adjusting his shooting motion at the line. He is now shooting the free throw with just his thrust hand while the guide hand has minimal influence on the flight of the ball. In the past, the guide hand would obstruct the shooting motion which would lead to a messy shot arc and plenty of misses. This new motion means that there is less power on the shot but more control for Adams. The proof of the improved stroke came during the Raptors’ game, Adams went 5-6 from the free throw line.
- Luka Doncic - Luka Doncic was referred to as ‘Wonderboy’ during his time with Real Madrid in the ACB. He was one of Europe’s best players despite being one of the youngest players playing serious minutes on a title contender. Doncic’s special play has carried over to Dallas where he has been All-Star like in his play. The triple-double does not look special when Doncic plays the game, he achieves a difficult statistical easily while shooting a ridiculously high percentage from the field. The first time that I saw Luka was for Real Madrid when they played against CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague’s Final Four. I had heard from a Turkish friend at a pick-up game that this guy was legit and easily a number one overall draft pick. I saw this kid running the complex scheme that Pablo Llaso loves and being impressed by his proficiency in a tough situation, there were very few errors from Doncic. I liked his passing and could see him doing really well at the NBA level, there are few players who have that level of technical ability. Doncic will be a tough cover for the Thunder’s defence as his blend of shooting and passing vision means that he can often generate good looks for his team.
- Rick Carlisle - Rick Carlisle is considered to be one of the best coaches in the league and he has punctuated this reputation this season. Carlisle’s skills reside in making an ill-fitting collection of parts work in harmony and he has achieved this again with Dallas as they are the most efficient offence in the league. The masterclass that Carlisle has worked in visible in Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway Jr came as part of the Porzingis trade and there were concerns about his fit in Dallas. Hardaway had previously operated with the ball with New York and there was a belief that he would struggle to fit into an offence designed around Doncic. THJ commanding the offence would stilt the offensive flow and take the ball out of the hands of Luka. Those concerns were put to bed where Hardaway slid into the Mavericks’ offence seamlessly as a complementary role option without any fuss. The credit has to go to the coach for building an offence that players buy into.
Random Side Note:
Darius Bazley had a very good game against the Raptors the other night. Bazley scored twelve points on 4-7 shooting from deep. However, this performance will likely go under the radar as Bazley was postered in the most vicious manner by Chris Boucher. Boucher, the Montreal native, dunked the ball hard on Bazley’s head and the crowd responded accordingly. The Scotiabank Arena exploded with energy as they watched Boucher pull out the good stuff on Darius.