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January 15: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Toronto Raptors - Preview & Game Thread

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The Raptors come to Chesapeake for the first and only time this season

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City have been one of the league's hottest teams over the last few weeks and the team overcame a trap game against the Minnesota Timberwolves where Thunder teams in previous years have struggled. Minnesota has been a hard hunting for the Thunder because of Andrew Wiggins seemingly morphing into a basketball demon every single time the teams play each other. The focus now shifts to another tough game against the Toronto Raptors, one of the best defensive teams in the league. In the reverse fixture, in Toronto, the Thunder won by one point after big plays by the team down the stretch. The Raptors have looked iffy as of late as they have alternated wins and losses over the last six games. Toronto have been injury-ravaged over the entire season and a lot of credit has to be given to Nick Nurse for steering the team to a 25-14 record. The game starts at 8:00 (EST) and will be an interesting battle between two teams which are relatively even in terms of record.

Three Points to Note for the Thunder:

  1. Sniper Gallinari - Danilo Gallinari is a marksman from deep and this ability has been incredibly valuable to the Thunder countless times this season. Gallinari is brilliant at scoring efficiently and from all levels, there is no shot which Gallinari struggles with, his efficiency is uniform across the board. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Danilo demonstrated his value as a player as he scored thirty points off twelve field goals attempts. Gallinari consistently knocked down deep looks and got to the line where he knocked eleven free throws out of twelve attempts from the stripe. This particular game emphasises Gallinari’s value to the Thunder as ‘The Rooster’ steady, consistent scoring gives the Thunder margin in terms of other players having bad games. Oklahoma City can afford a few bad performances if Gallinari produces effectively during games. Over the last five games, Danilo Gallinari has shaken off any injury related rust and has been white-hot in terms of his production. Gallo is averaging 23.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game over this period of games while also being highly effective from deep. Gallinari is shooting 48.1% on 6.8 three point attempts per game which is incredible efficiency when considering the volume. I would like Gallinari to lean into the perimeter aspect of his game even more because he is the type of player who cut leads within a few possessions with his ability to knock down the deep ball.
  2. Ball Movement - Over the last ten years, Oklahoma City have not been a pass-happy team where the ball is shared between every single player. The roster over this time frame has always had two isolation specialists and therefore it made sense for the coaching staff to run a system where isolation basketball was the cornerstone of the offence. Oklahoma City have made ball movement a priority this system and have beaten teams using the passing game rather than individual brilliance. Oklahoma City have split defences by making smart, fast passes on offence. It is common logic that a player cannot move faster than the ball and the Thunder have used this simple fact to great effect. The example below indicates how effective the Thunder have been this season when the ball is flying around the court. The passing will need to be special against the Raptors who are well-known for stingy defence. Toronto currently rank second in the league in defensive rating behind only the Milwaukee Bucks. Their exceptional defence comes from the team being well-drilled on defensive rotations which smothers offence as very few gaps appear to get into the lane for a good look.

3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been much discussed by Thunder fans this season for being one hell of a talent. He is a young player who has such maturity on the court and a polish to his game which is uncommon for second year pros. Against the Timberwolves, Gilgeous-Alexander stepped up when his guard colleagues were out of rhythm. SGA notched his first triple double and the first Thunder triple double since the King of Prairie, Russell Westbrook left for Houston in the summer. The stat-line of 20/20/10 is obviously impressive but it was how SGA got his numbers which stood out to me. Gilgeous-Alexander did not look hurried as he went about business and he rarely forced the action in favour of getting his own statistical accomplishments. The only time when SGA seemed like he was trying to get his own was for his final assist where he passed up good looks in favour of a pass to team-mates instead. The George trade was the end of the era for the Thunder, it was certain that Westbrook would go once George had departed. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been key in starting the new era by winning games consistently and playing good team basketball. At the time, Sam Presti took a lot of heat for trading George away but he deserves praise for getting a young player with All-NBA potential who will be under team control for the next seven years.

Raptors’ Roars:

  1. Toronto Injuries - Toronto have really struggled with injuries over the season so far and it has been a game of musical chairs for Nick Nurse to deal with. One player seems to come back from injury before another player is quickly made unavailable because of injury. It has been a difficult complexity for Nick Nurse to manage because he has not been able to play a settled, stable side for an extended stretch of the season. At the moment, Fred VanVleet is out with a hamstring injury. VanVleet has been important for Nurse’s men over this past year as he is one of the team’s primary offensive contributors while being a pitfall on defence. FVV has had an amazing rise from being an undrafted player out of Wichita State to a starting guard on a championship winning team, he will likely be in line for a big contract in the future. Marc Gasol returns from his own hamstring injury against the Thunder which presents a tough challenge for Steven Adams. Gasol is one of the league's premier defensive big man because of his anticipation and ability to stifle the opposing big. The beauty in his play comes from Gasol’s reading of the game and how Marc is adept at positioning himself to blow up plays. It is almost a sixth sense for Marc and he uses this skill to lead a team on defence. Marc Gasol has a lot of similarities with Sergio Busquets, the Barcelona defensive midfielder. Both players do not do flashy things with the ball but they are instrumental in creating defensive solidity.
  2. Kyle Lowry - Kyle Lowry has been the Raptors’ leader for the last seven years and over this stretch of time, he has played a variety of different roles. Lowry has been the primary scorer on the Raptors, the best defender and main distributor on the team during his tenure on the team. Kyle is one of the few ultimate utility men who could be plugged into any lineup and produce from the guard positions because he can do everything. Lowry is more than willing to draw charges and play hard-nosed defences while also running an offence. This leadership has been so important for the Raptors as they rely on G-League players on a nightly basis. Lowry has been the vet on the floor getting young players to the spots where they need to be.

Random Side-Note:

Justin Patton has been a little-used member of the Thunder roster this season. Patton has not found minutes available for him with Nerlens Noel, Steven Adams and Mike Muscala ahead of him in the big man pecking order. Patton has played spot minutes for the Thunder while getting an extended run with the Oklahoma City Blue. Patton had a big night for the Blue as the team beat the South Bay Lakers.