Game: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Toronto Raptors
Time: 8:30PM CST
Location: Chesapeake Arena, OKC
Counterpart: Raptors HQ
Here are 2 key players to watch in this game- 1 for each team.
1. The Return of Russ
The Thunder were without their franchise icon in Monday’s loss to the Heat, as Russell Westbrook served a one game suspension for racking up 16 technical fouls (he will be suspended again if he picks up 2 more in the team’s final 11 games). They might have been better off without him Saturday’s blowout loss to Golden State, as Westbrook scored just 7 points on a 2-16 shooting performance, in addition to picking up that 16th technical foul.
His absence on Monday and nauseating performance on Saturday showed just how badly OKC needs Westbrook- even with Paul George in tow, they lack any sort of coherent offense without Westbrook driving into the lane and drawing help to set up others. Dennis Schroder does not inspire the same fear in defenses, making him less effective at setting up role players who rely on spoon-feeding from Westbrook to get points. George, while a fantastic player, still prefers to play without the ball in his hands more often that not, meaning their will be possessions where the ball doesn’t come to him even while he’s putting up impressive stat lines.
For the first four months of the season, there was nonstop talk about Westbrook’s broken jumpshot, and how much that was holding back the Thunder. Since the all-star break, Russ has been much better shooting the ball, averaging 46% from the field and 35% from the arc- well above his career averages. The return of his jump shot has coincided with the Thunder’s worst stretch of the season- they’re just 5-9 since the break.
That feels like a fluke. Westbrook finding his jump shot again is a good thing, and his resurgence coinciding with a cold stretch for OKC is mostly a fluke. Westbrook averages 20 potential assists per game on the season, and 18 since the all-star break (both marks are best in the league over those stretches). He has swapped those 2 potential assists almost perfectly for 2 more shot attempts per game- 20 on the season as a whole, 22 since the break. That is a perfectly acceptable trade-off to make when his shot is falling, as it has.
The Thunder’s offensive struggles have been mainly due to everyone else’s inability to make shots- since the break, Paul George has shot just 38% from the field while battling a shoulder injury, Terrance Ferguson has shot 37% while battling a late season slump, and Dennis Schroder has shot 35% while battling the condition of being Dennis Schroder. That trio is shooting under 30% combined from 3 during that stretch.
The best way for Russ to get his teammates out of their shooting ruts is by attacking and setting up them up for good looks. George has fully rounded back into form over the last 4 games, hitting 44% from the field and 43% from 3 point land. Russ doesn’t need to carry the team with his shooting as long as PG’s on, but he doesn’t need to pass up good shots either. For Westbrook it’s always a balancing act between playmaking and scoring, attacking and deferring. The return of his shot shifts that balance a little bit, but the team still needs his playmaking far more than they need his shooting.
2. Heart full of Gasol
The Raptors find themselves in the same spot OKC did last year: trying to convince a superstar on a one year rental to commit to the team long term. In hoping Kawhi Leonard will re-up with them just as PG re-upped with the Thunder, Toronto went out and got their would-be fiancee a fat ol diamond ring in the form of Marc Gasol. Nothing shows someone you’re serious like spending big on something they really want.
So far so good. The Raptors have been elite all season, with the third best net rating in the NBA at +5.5. With Gasol on the floor, that number jumps all the way to +9.8 (a better mark than the Warriors have posted on the season).
Gasol is of course a former Defensive player of the year who still provides a ton on that end even in his older age. Offensively he gives Toronto a whole new look- Gasol is an elite passer who loves to facilitate from the elbows, an element the Raptors lacked previously. Surround Gasol with 4 good shooters- say, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard and Pascal Siakam- and give him the ball at the elbow and the lane is wide open for back door cuts, as the opposing center needs to stay tight on Gasol least he feast on open shots of his own.
The Thunder notoriously have struggled all season defending playmaking big men like Nikola Jokic and Al Horford, as they clearly prefer to keep Steven Adams close to the rim to deter drives and box out. Gasol is also a nasty partner for Lowry and Leonard in the pick and roll- if the Thunder send Adams high on those screens to prevent dribble penetration, Gasol can take pick and pop jumpers or roll to the rim, where he’ll be comfortable finishing around help defenders or slinging the next pass. Adams will have his hands full with Gasol on both ends.
We’ll see if the the gift of Gasol is enough to get Kawhi to stay (our friends at Raptors HQ are confident), but no one can say Toronto didn’t try.
For more on this game, check out the latest episode of the Rolling Thunder Review on on iTunes and Spotify by clicking the links, or just listen below. This week I was joined by Jay Rosales of Raptors HQ to talk about all manner of things related to this matchup:
-Serge Ibaka’s role in Toronto and evolution since leaving OKC
-Pascal Siakam’s Breakout Season and his similarity to Jerami Grant
-Jay’s Finals prediction (hint: it involves these two teams)
Who do you think will win tonight?
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