Oklahoma City come into Monday night’s game against Dallas full of confidence. The Thunder have been really good as of late as the team has managed to win games while dealing with injuries. The win against Minnesota was a little scrappy without the services of Danilo Gallinari and Nerlens Noel but Oklahoma City managed to get over the line on the second night of a back to back. OKC will need this confidence as they play against Dallas in a game which could determine play-off seeding. The Thunder sit just one game back from Dallas having played two more games than the Mavericks. It is awfully tight between the two teams and having a victory over the Mavericks will give the Thunder the tie-breaker if both teams finish the season with the same record. Dallas lost their last game against the formidable Utah Jazz and will be looking to get back in the victory column against OKC. The game starts at 8:00 (EST) and will be a box office match-up as Luka Doncic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander face off.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Mike Muscala - Mike Muscala received a lot of criticism from me at the start of the season. I was unimpressed by his shooting despite Muscala coming to Oklahoma with the reputation of being a stretch five. To be totally honest, there were times when I wondered if Mike was an actual NBA player, he simply looked out of depth during the early months of his Thunder career. Muscala has picked up recently and is finally starting to show why the Thunder made such an effort to acquire him in free agency. The shooting has come back to him and Muscala has been hitting from deep over the last five games which adds another dimension to the Thunder offence. Muscala is a very different centre compared to Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams due to his shooting ability and relative lack of size. The ‘Moose’ is fairly slender for the centre spot which often means he is perimeter oriented in his play. Oklahoma City benefit from the floor-spacing provided by Muscala’s deep shooting because it drags opposing bigs out of the paint and creates space inside for the guards to create. Before this recent stretch, defences could sag off Mike as he was clanking every look, now he is making shots the threat of his shooting has to be respected. The confidence in his play is visible, Muscala looks less frantic on offence and more content to drop into spots where he can hurt defences. His impact has been so important for the Thunder in a period of time where Oklahoma City lacked big man to play centre.
- Darius Bazley - Darius Bazley is another player who started the season and did not look wholly comfortable at the NBA level. Bazley is a sharp player mentally but his lack of physicality was a real issue for Bazley, especially as he drove inside to finish at the rim. Bazley has grown massively as a player over the course of the season and he played his finest game so far against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Darius had fifteen points and six rebounds on efficient shooting but it was how he achieved his numbers that was impressive. Bazley was controlled and decisive with the ball as he got inside for good looks at the rim which he converted. In the early period of the season, Bazley seemed to always finish with a technical, cultured finish at the rim where he did not embrace contact at all. It meant that Bazley made life needlessly difficult for himself and did not convert efficiently on good looks. Against the T-Wolves, Bazley used his speed and length to finish strong at the rim and beat the defence before it could even set up. Baze has a burst of pace mid-stride which allows him to finish before the help defender has a chance to rotate over and against Minny, it felt like Bazley finally realised that he has a good physical advantage. Darius will need to embrace contact and physical punishment as he plays against a guy like Kristaps Porzingis, a lengthy powerfully-built power forward. This will be crucial in Bazley having any success against the Dallas Mavericks.
- Dort - Luguentz Dort has become a fan favourite of late, both here and on Twitter, for his strong play on the defensive end. He has matched up against James Harden, Trae Young and Damian Lillard while looking comfortable and effectively on defence. Dort has stepped into a starting role for the Thunder admirably and he will likely be rewarded with a full contract from Sam Presti. Oklahoma City have a free roster spot that they can use to sign Dort to the main roster for the long-term. A young guy like Dort who can defend effectively against top-level talents does not come around every day and therefore needs to be secured for the foreseeable future. Dort’s emergence as starting guard for the Thunder does raise an interesting question about Dort continuing to start when Ferguson comes back from his personal issues. Ferguson has been the incumbent shooting guard since Andre Roberson’s patellar injury but Dort has made a strong case over this current run of games. Lu has proved that he can run with the starters effectively and his ability to move the ball on offence does fit more cleanly with the Thunder's offensive scheme. While Ferguson is arguably a better defender, his passivity on offence does hurt the Thunder as defences sag off T-Ferg and do not respect his shot. Dort has shown a willingness to shoot the three-ball despite having a funky motion. Lu has also showed flashes of play-making, it is entirely feasible that Lu could be relied upon to run some of the offence going forward.
- Powell - Dallas lost a crucial player to their success the other night. Dwight Powell suffered an Achilles injury and the season was over for the Mavericks’ starting centre. Dwight Powell has been important for the Mavericks this season in terms of providing a proficient pick and roll partner for Luka Doncic. This injury has forced Dallas to make a trade and acquire Willie Cauley Stein from the Golden State Warriors. The move itself was low-cost, Dallas only gave up a second-round pick, but it could pay dividends for the Mavericks. Stein has all of the physical and technical tools to be a really good big man in the league, the common knock on his play is that Stein does not play with any passion. The criticism of Stein is not totally unfounded, he does seem to drift through games listlessly occasionally without providing any real value for his team-mates. Rick Carlisle will be betting on his ability to bring the best out of misfits will get Willie Cauley Stein to a point where he is consistently playing with intensity.
- Wonderboy - Luka has had one of the best sophomore seasons which I have witnessed in the NBA. He is leading an offence at a historically efficient rate and beating all of the pre-season expectations. The media expected Dallas to be a lottery team and yet Doncic has led Dallas to a play-off spot. For all of his efforts, Luka has been rewarded with All-Star appearance for the first time in his young career. It is somewhat unreal that a player so young, just twenty, is already one of the best players in the league.
Oklahoma City’s record has been very good this season when the upheaval in the off-season is considered. The Thunder have assembled a versatile roster which has significantly over-achieved and looks to be a play-off lock, barring any injuries. The numbers behind the Thunder are also pretty impressive and could hint that the Thunder are not just a good team. Since Thanksgiving, Oklahoma City have gone 22-8 in terms of the record. This level of winning is only bettered by the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, two teams which are winning machines at the moment. The Thunder have won games over this thirty game period at a 73.3% clip. Over a full season, OKC would be a 60-win team if the team won a this rate. This number suggests that the Thunder are better than their current record indicates. The pertinent question surrounding this team is whether the regular season success will translate to the play-offs. The play-offs seemed like a pipe dream at the start of the season but given the experience and versatility of this roster, you have to think that the Thunder could cause a first round upset.