Start Time: 7 p.m. CT
Broadcasters: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
The time has come.
Following an illustrious 7-year career in which he established himself as one of the most beloved players in franchise history, Steven Adams will be making his first appearance in Chesapeake Energy Arena in another jersey, as the New Orleans Pelicans travel to Oklahoma City to ring in the New Year.
The emotional impact of the Big Kiwi’s return will be somewhat blunted by the absence of fans in the arena - hopefully, we get a world-class tribute video to make up for it. Adams earned it.
Game Preview: Four Things to Watch
- Two Intriguing Center Battles
In honor of Adams, we begin with the showdown at center.
Adams remains one of the better defensive centers in the NBA, but he’s occasionally struggled with quicker, stretchier centers throughout his career.
“Quick” probably isn’t how you’d describe Al Horford at age 34, but he is a mobile big man who can move with the ball, pass from the high post, and shoot 3’s. Against the Jazz and Rudy Gobert, Horford had a quick trigger on his threes, taking seven and making 3 as Gobert preferred to hang back on defense.
Expect more of the same tonight, as Stan Van Gundy seems to have the Pels primarily focused on defending the rim, at the expense of the three-point line. It’s early, of course, but 46% of opponents’ shots against the Pelicans have come from three point range this season, by far the highest mark in the league.
The Bucks famously used a similar strategy last season, defending the paint at all costs and allowing average and below-average 3-point shooters to fire away from three, and rode that result to the best defense in the NBA.
Time will tell if this works out as well for New Orleans but expect to see Horford launch more 3’s again tonight.
The backup center minutes should also be interesting. Horford sat out Tuesday’s game against Charlotte due to the chronic condition of “old age”, leading to Isaiah Roby’s first career start.
Roby was an absolute delight offensively, scoring 19 points and absolutely demolishing Nikola Vucevic’s ankles in the process.
To be fair to Vuc, Roby was no match for him at the other end, as Vucevic scored 28 points against young Roby.
You know what though? Mike Muscala isn’t exactly a world-class rim protector himself. Roby should get some more minutes as a backup center even on nights Horford is healthy.
This matchup with the Pels is a good opportunity for that, as the Pelicans' own backup center is Jaxson Hayes, who has defensive deficiencies of his own. Mark Daigneault and Stan van Gundy - let these two go at each other!
2. Another Challenge for Future DPOY Lu Dort
A ho-hum start to the season for Luguentz Dort so far- all he’s done so far is lock-up Gordon Hayward and Donovan Mitchell while averaging 19 points a game himself. Not bad!
Dort will have his hands full in this one as he faces two of the most unique scoring threats in the NBA - Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Ingram is the type of guy we’ve seen Dort have success with before - a deadly perimeter scoring threat who likes to attack one-one-one and pull-up for 3’s and midrange 2’s.
Dort’s ability to pressure up into Ingram, stay connected through screens, and contest his shot could lead to a long night for Ingram. Unfortunately for OKC, Dort is probably also their best option against the runaway train that is Zion Williamson.
By position, Zion would be Darius Bazley’s matchup, but he might not be physically strong enough to contain Williamson. Dort of course is extremely strong and also quick enough to stick with Williamson on his maniac drives to the rim.
Expect to see Dort spend time guarding both these guys at various points. Dort will likely make their lives difficult, but he can only guard one at a time, and he also can’t play all 48 minutes per game - Stan van Gundy likes to stagger his rotations so that one of the two is always on the floor.
Someone besides Dort is going to need to step-up against these two for OKC to get the win.
3. OKC’s Bench
The Thunder’s bench looked dreadful in the opener and not much better against the Jazz, but they came alive in the matchup with Orlando, keeping the Thunder in the game for stretches. Hamidou Diallo, Point Guard, still isn’t doing much playmaking (an incredible 0:4 Assist to Turnover Ratio) but he was at least efficient in his scoring performance on Tuesday.
Mike Muscala got hot from deep, Theo Maledon had a couple of impressive buckets and some nice dimes, and Poku finally got his first NBA bucket. Can the bench have a second respectable performance in a row, especially against a Pelicans team that likes to run mixed starter-bench units?
The Pelicans bring the ultra-dependable Josh Hart and JJ Reddick off the bench, but from there it gets uglier. The Thunder’s bench will especially need to capitalize offensively in the minutes when the defensively challenged Hayes and Nicoli Melli are in at center.
4. SGA Needs to Lead the Team in Shots
Shai-Gilgeous Alexander has been simply magnificent to start this season, averaging over 23 points and 7 assists through three games. So far he has looked more than comfortable taking on the lead playmaker role.
He was excellent against the Magic, posting 23 points on just 10 shots. That’s stunning efficiency - but 10 shots are also too few for SGA.
Even with his added playmaking responsibilities, he’s still the team’s biggest scoring threat, and nights like Tuesday where both Lu Dort and Darius Bazley took more shots than him, should be few and far between.
For this matchup, in particular, SGA will face two strong defensive guards in Eric Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball. Ball figures to guard him at the start with Bledsoe taking the smaller George Hill, which puts SGA against a similarly tall, long, and lanky guard.
There’s also a chance that at some point SGA will match up against his cousin, Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who got his first minutes of the season in Tuesday’s blowout loss to Phoenix.