Start Time: 7 p.m. CT
Broadcasters: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
The Thunder's win against Charlotte started the season on a positive note for Oklahoma City; the Thunder will look to build on this result against the Utah Jazz. The Jazz come into this game after a loss to Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz struggled hard in the first half of the Timberwolves’ game and were unable to overturn a big deficit against the team led by Karl Anthony Towns.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had the most impressive statline of the night but it was Kenrich Williams who caught my eye. Williams came to the Thunder in the Adams trade and many expected Williams to be cut by Oklahoma City. The Thunder needed to trim the roster and Williams’ non-guaranteed contract made him a cheap deal to waive. Kenny survived the cuts and looked very good against the Hornets.
Kenrich was everywhere on defense; he was excellent at spotting dangerous situations and positioning himself to stifle the Hornets’ offense. Williams’ stats were fairly pedestrian, 5/3/2 with one block and one steal but they do not tell the full story. His hands were active and Williams accumulated deflections that were important in neutralising Charlotte on the offensive end.
Williams is not the biggest or fastest player around but his motor is excellent. Williams’ effort was tireless as he tracked his assignment without allowing a moment of space. That sort of defensive pressure was important in taking Gordon Hayward out of the rhythm of the game during the first half.
His ceiling is fairly low but there is certainly a role for a grinder like him on the Thunder going forward. He is a versatile forward who plays like every game could be his last; that sort of desire is so important in driving winning.
Diallo at the Point
During training camps, we heard a lot of talk about running Hamidou Diallo at the point. It was an interesting idea as Diallo has spent the last two seasons trying to find a position where he can excel; the point guard spot was worth a shot.
Coach Mark Daigneault deployed Diallo as the lead ball-handler against the Hornets and the initial returns were pretty mixed. Diallo’s athleticism was useful in breaking down a defense but his finishing at the rim was poor. Diallo missed one or two easy layups that he should be converting. Hamidou’s athleticism allowed him to get the offensive rebound and the putback finish but there will be times when athleticism is not enough.
Hami’s handle looks to be tighter than last year but his passing vision still needs work. Diallo seem to settle for the safe option rather than attempting a pass that would stretch the defense. For him to be an effective lead ball-handler, Diallo has to be able to see the court and see the opportunities that he can create for teammates.
I would prefer to see more of Maledon at the point but Coach Daigneault’s decision does make a lot of sense. The Thunder should continue with this experiment for a few more games and build a better sample size so that Diallo can be evaluated properly.
Maledon’s Magical Moments
Theo had a relatively quiet game by his standards but his debut was still very impressive. The man from Rouen did not look out of place on an NBA floor; Theo’s shot did not drop early on but he stayed aggressive and displayed a delicate touch with his finishing in the second half.
Maledon was fearless on the court and that lack of fear sprinkled magic across his performance. Theo’s passing was brave and audacious; Maledon was able to pull off high-difficulty reads with ease.
The best example of his astute vision involved Mike Muscala. Theo unleashed a pinpoint bounce pass that Muscala was able to scoop up and finish for two points. The timing and accuracy on the pass was very good; it was the sort of pass that you would expect to see from an experienced point guard.
The audacity did result in turnovers and a moment where Maledon tried to create a look for himself out of an inbounds pass with just 4.2 seconds on the clock. Theo threw the inbounds pass off the back of the Hornets’ player. The ball bounced back to him and he was free to go up for a layup. Instead, Theo tossed a pass out to the perimeter that nobody caught.
The play did not work but Maledon’s creativity should not be discouraged. I want him to keep on trying to find unusual angles to attack the defense. Maledon is a different sort of point guard and his off-beat style needs to be nurtured.
Last week, the Jazz signed Rudy Gobert to an extension worth $205m. Gobert has blossomed into an elite defensive force during his time in Utah but there were a lot of concerns about a new contract for Rudy. Gobert has relatively rudimentary skills on offense and a max deal is a lot of money for a player who does not do much on offense outside of rim rolling for dunks.
The contract was widely panned as a move that ensured that the Jazz would not be a contending team over the course of the next five years. However, I beg to differ on that front. The extension given to Rudy is an over-pay but the alternative is much worse.
Gobert leaving in 2021 would kickstart a rebuild for Utah that would set them back years without any certainty of title contention down the line. The Jazz had to pay Gobert the money to keep him in Utah as the alternative would have been an uncertain rebuild.
Moreover, small markets like Oklahoma City or Utah do not get top-tier elite free agents to sign in free agency. The Thunder’s splashiest free agency move ever is Patrick Patterson, Utah’s biggest free agency addition is Carlos Boozer fifteen years ago. Small market teams cannot afford to let homegrown stars just walk.
The Jazz have a balanced, deep roster but Utah’s offense is susceptible to aggressive ball pressure. Defense that harries the lead ball-handler and forces mistakes is a weakness for the Jazz. Minnesota and their assortment of athletic wings were very good at pressing the shot creator into mistakes.
Oklahoma City have to employ the same sort of strategy. Luguentz Dort has to guard Mike Conley and Dort has to use his physicality to take Conley out of the game. The Jazz’s offense is largely dependent on Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. OKC need to force Donovan Mitchell to carry the load on offense.
The Thunder’s first home game since the NBA stopped will be against the team who they faced on that fateful night in March. On March 11, Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test brought the NBA to a crashing halt. The Thunder and Jazz will play each other for the first time in ten months.