The Thunder come into a game against Brooklyn after a tough loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, a game which Oklahoma City had every chance of winning. The Thunder pushed Philly hard during the closing stanza but were unable to get over the line which meant that OKC lost for the first time in six games. The game against Brooklyn presents a good opportunity against competitive opposition to go 3-1 on the four game trip. Brooklyn have struggled in recent weeks and this was evident in their last game, a loss to the Orlando Magic. Brooklyn did not shoot the ball well and could not handle the heat which Markelle Fultz brought in the fourth quarter. The Nets are also on the second night of a back to back but will likely be more travel fatigued. The Philly-Brooklyn back to back means that the Thunder only had to travel one hundred miles up I-95, a relatively short journey by chartered aircraft. Brooklyn has had to travel up the East Coast from Central Florida, a significantly longer journey. Although Brooklyn have the home crowd edge, the Thunder will be slightly fresher than the home town.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Late Game Execution - Oklahoma City have been pretty solid in terms of closing out and winning tight games this season. The final quarter against the Sixers was pretty poor compared to the normal performances that the Thunder have mustered when the pressure is on. OKC had the deficit down to one possession multiple times but they could never find the go ahead basket which would finally turn the momentum in the Thunder’s favour. Philadelphia withstood the push by Oklahoma City and got crucial buckets down the stretch which would make the lead insurmountable against opposition who have been comeback specialists all season long. The sloppy execution was evident at the foul line for the Thunder, a team that is usually pretty good at converting charity stripe shots into free points. Oklahoma City left points on the table as they shot 6-10 from the line during the final period of the game. You would expect OKC to knock down those looks as they closed down the deficit, the opposite was true as the Thunder went cold from this area of the floor. The other execution issue which was irritating was that the Thunder allowed Philadelphia back into the game by scrapping driving into the lane. Philly were foul-happy all night and the Thunder drew a lot of fouls which generate free throws and a tentative Sixers’ defence. Steven Adams got Philly into foul trouble early in the fourth quarter but the Thunder did not turn the game into a foul-shooting parade where the lead could be built comfortably. The opposite was true as the Thunder settled for mid-range jumpers and isolation buckets.
- Adams’ Big Night - Steven Adams was exceptionally against the Philadelphia Sixers as he out-performed Joel Embiid. Joel Embiid is the best player on a team expected to contend for an NBA championship this season and yet Adams made Embiid look feeble. Steven dissected Philly’s defence for 24/15/2 as he consistently got inside and finished looks efficiently. Moreover, Steven Adams was important in generating second chance opportunities for the Thunder as he grabbed offensive board after offensive board, the energy did not provide Philly any respite on the defensive end of the floor. The defence on Joel Embiid is where Adams shined in this game which seems strange to say when Adams was great on offence. Adams made good use of his physicality to wear Embiid down and tire him out and was intelligent in the defence he played. Joel Embiid is hugely effective inside and that is his desired spot when he wants to stuff the box score. Adams sealed off the paint every time Embiid received the ball and did not allow the Philly big man to get inside, he forced Embiid into mid-range jumpers. The defensive intensity from the game against Philly needs to carry over to tonight’s game against the Nets. Spencer Dinwiddie is a talented pick and roll practitioner who can exploit missteps on defence. The Thunder will likely use a drop coverage to give Dinwiddie open looks from the mid-range (an inefficient shot for Spencer). The key requirement from Adams is that he gets his positioning near the rim correct and forces Dinwiddie into tough layups.
- Gallinari Ball-Handler - Danilo Gallinari had a great run of play during the third quarter where he kept the Thunder offence alive by scoring the ball and passing effectively. Gallo scored ten, hard-earned, points against the Philly as the offence ran through him, Danilo Gallinari has not been featured as the offence’s primary option that much over the course of the season but these minutes provided a different look for the Thunder offence. Gallinari running the offence meant that the Thunder ran a little-used action which was a staple of the Clippers’ offence, the 4-5 pick and roll. Gallinari as a ball-handler in this action is deadly as defences have to respect his ability to shoot off the dribble. This threat drew more defenders towards Gallinari as they expected a mid-range jumper out of the Italian forward, Gallinari leveraged this attention into a completed lob for Steven Adams. The 4-5 pick and roll works well as an offensive option because it is unusual and defences do not how they should defend the set. Billy Donovan could add further options to this action by having ‘the Three Amigos’ working off-ball as cutters and floor-spacers. In terms of fit, the play makes sense within the Thunder’s scheme as it makes full use of all five willing passers in the offence and the play’s effectiveness comes from the ball movement.
- No Kyrie Irving - Kyrie Irving has been absent from the Nets’ rotation for an extended period of time due to a shoulder injury. The injury sustained by Irving is pretty serious and the Duke guard is considering season ending surgery in order to get his shoulder right. Brooklyn have been extremely cautious with Irving’s recovery as Kyrie has a lengthy injury history and there is no real incentive to push through a return to the court. The Nets are not playing for anything this season and it makes sense to have both of their All-Stars fully healthy as they chase a championship next season. In the present, the loss of Irving is pretty big as his scoring is difficult to replace. Spencer Dinwiddie has played admirably as he tries to fill the role left behind by Irving but his efficiency has fallen off a cliff compared to previous season.
- Sean Marks - Sean Marks is the general manager of the Brooklyn Nets who is responsible for one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in the history of the league. Marks took an organisation which was a wasteland, utterly devoid of assets and a future to being the team which landed two top level NBA players in the form of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Marks deserves a lot of credit for building a team which developed athletes into rotation players, he found his own assets instead of stumbling around until their draft pick came good. The work is not done for Sean Marks, the addition of superstar talent will challenge another dimension of his management. Marks will need to become proficient in managing egos and ensuring that Durant/Irving buy into the culture which the Nets have built their success off. This is a difficult job and I wish Marks the best of the luck as Brooklyn make strides towards an NBA title.
Oklahoma City will play the Houston Rockets on January 9th in a game which has been circled on the calendar for Thunder fans since the league schedule came out before the season. It is the return of Russell Westbrook to the state which he called home for eleven years and to the franchise he gave everything for. Westbrook’s homecoming will likely be very emotional on both sides as it is the first time that both teams can appreciate the man who was lovingly termed ‘Beastbrook’ by many Thunder fans. It is a point of reflection for both Westbrook and the Thunder organisation, Westbrook grew as a man in OKC while the Thunder organisation imbued the swagger from Russ’ game. The game will be hard-fought and I fully expect a play-off type game in January as neither Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook will want to lose the game. It is also a chance for Russell Westbrook to get a triple-double against the Thunder and complete the set, a triple-double against every team in the league.