Oklahoma City play Philadelphia at a tricky point of the schedule as the Thunder are currently on a lengthy road-trip and this game is arguably the hardest game of the swing so far. Philadelphia are a really good side and will likely be contending for a Finals’ berth when the play-off roll around. OKC’s hot streak is only growing after a controlled victory in Cleveland where the game looked comfortable for the Thunder, the confidence will be up as Oklahoma City chase a higher play-off berth. The game starts at 7:00 (EST) which is perfect for international fans who usually tune in in the early hours of the morning, this will likely be one of the few games that I will personally watch live. It also represents a chance for the Thunder to prove that they can match up with a championship-level team without looking out-classed or over-matched.
Three Points to Note for The Thunder:
- Mature Play - An issue for the Thunder this season has been in regards to their performances against teams who you would expect the Thunder to roll over easily. A lottery team like Memphis or Chicago should be no issue for a play-off team like the Thunder and yet Oklahoma City had to dig deep to get a victory in these games. The manner of victory was impressive but also pretty worrying as these types of performances would eventually get punished by a team on a hot shooting night. Against Cleveland, the Thunder were refreshing in the professional way they went about securing the victory. Oklahoma City built a double-digit lead by the half which Cleveland had no chance of reducing especially with the internal turmoil currently occurring in North East Ohio. Every player chipped in and Oklahoma did not let their performance levels dropped, the team continued to play hard on the defensive end while producing collectively on offence. At this point of the season, every win counts towards play-off seeding and it was encouraging to see the Thunder play like this as games against lottery teams are easy layups. Oklahoma City are in a really good position in terms of the Western Conference standings, the Mavericks are only two games ahead of the Thunder. It is totally achievable for the Thunder to get past the Mavericks for the sixth seed, OKC are just 4.5 games back from the second seed.
- Bench Production - For the majority of the season, the bench production has largely been Dennis Schroder balling out and sustaining the unit's offence. This has only been possible as Dennis has scored the ball efficiently with consistency on a nightly basis. This production has been necessary for a Thunder bench unit which has struggled with injury, inconsistency and slightly irregular minutes. In the game against Cleveland, the rest of the bench unit got involved on the action and produced a balanced performance from this unit as a whole. Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley brought energy to the floor and raised the Thunder’s intensity levels while Noel continued to defend the rim with purpose. The reserves had fifty two points off the bench, an always welcome statistic for a Thunder offence which is built off every player contributing something offensively. This production needs to carry forward into the game against Philly as the Sixers are top-heavy and struggle for quality reserves. The Thunder’s bench with the exception of Mike Scott is better than the Sixers’ bench. The Thunder could exploit Philly’s weaknesses by the bench unit performing effectively.
- Danilo Gallinari - Danilo Gallinari did not have a good game against Cleveland as he missed most shots he took inside of the arc. However, Gallinari’s deep-shooting was impressive and this will be a point of emphasis for the Thunder going into the game against the 76ers. Al Horford has clearly lost a step this season and does not look like the same player who was arguably the best big man in the Eastern Conference over the past few seasons. Horford is most comfortable inside the paint defensively and Gallinari would do well to run the majority of his offence through the perimeter to take advantage of Horford’s slow-footed nature. Horford looks creaky and may struggle getting out to cover a perimeter shooter like Gallinari who is incredibly efficient on these looks.
- Tension - The Philadelphia Sixers are a pressure cooker in terms of pressure. The fans in Philly have incredibly high expectations of the roster and therefore will not hesitate to criticise the roster if they feel that the team is not performing well at all. There is also the added pressure that Philly are all in on winning a championship with this roster, every loss right now feels like a step backwards and invites questions about accountability and maturity from the media. The Sixers have under-performed offensively and it is not hard to see why, the floor spacing is terrible which prevents Joel Embiid from getting good looks inside. Opposing teams can completely sag off Ben Simmons which only increases the defensive pressure on Embiid down low. Simmons’ refusal to shoot the ball from deep has been a thorn for the Sixers for some time but it has only become an issue this season because the floor-spacing has got significantly worse. Players like JJ Redick or Marco Bellinelli could be relied upon to consistently make deep looks, the same cannot be said for Tobias Harris this season. It could be a smart idea for the Thunder to mix up the defensive coverages and play zone for a few possessions at the time, the zone encourages shots from deep, an area of the game where Philly suck.
- Injury Report - The Sixers will be without Matisse Thybulle who is still recovering from an injury sustained on Christmas Day. Thybulle has been a defensive monster this season and was a great draft pick by Elton Brand this past summer. Thybulle has been one of the few consistent bench contributors and his inability to play hurts Philly. It makes a thin bench even more stretched.
Chris Paul took the roster to an Eagles’ game today, one day before the Thunder play the 76ers at Wells Fargo Centre. Paul has stepped into the role of veteran leader really well and is passing forward the same wisdom that he received at the start of his career. Paul learned early in his tenure with New Orleans that a roster becomes tight when guys hang out together and make a point to be part of each other's lives. He has previously spoken in the past about his vets, guys like Trevor Ariza and David West being important in shaping his professional development. It is pleasing to see Paul do the same for the Thunder’s young players as Paul is a top level professional, his advice will be invaluable to players who need this guidance at an important stage of their career.
It is genuinely pretty rare that I write media notes but this will be the second note in the space of two games. The news is important in regards to the coverage of the Thunder by traditional print media. The Thunder have been covered by the Norman Transcript and the Oklahoman home and away since the team’s inception. The Transcript cut back their coverage a while ago and finally the Oklahoman has taken the decision to cut funding for journalists attending away games. This decision has likely come about due to cost-cutting as less people buy print media and therefore it is harder to budget for trips that are costly. This will mean that beat writers like Maddie Lee and Joe Mussatto will not have quotes from every player interview or team conference across the season.