Oklahoma City starts the final portion of the season with a tough game against the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are one of the few teams who are legitimately fighting for a deep play-off run and the possibility of winning an NBA title. Denver is stingy defensively and will make life difficult for the Thunder, so it is imperative that the offense works to its fullest.
A victory against the Nuggets would be a significant season win. There has been a lot of chatter about the Thunder not having a chance in the play-offs — this is the type of game where OKC can prove that they are no push-overs.
The game starts at 8:00 (EST) and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder
1. Offensive Rating
Despite Oklahoma City having mixed results coming into the All-Star break, the offense in the games prior was impressive. From the eye test, it did not seem like Oklahoma City were doing anything special on that end of the floor, but the numbers paint a different picture.
OKC’s offensive rating over the last ten games stands at 115.8, which would rank the Thunder as fifth in the league. This rating is exceptional and it largely stems from the entire team developing a really good comfort level on the court. Four of the starters have played with each other for more than fifty games, developing a chemistry with the Thunder thinking as one brain on the court.
While this offensive efficiency is hugely impressive, I still think that OKC can improve even further by tweaking the offensive scheming on offense. Oklahoma City had a lot of success early in the season by going to Adams in hand-off situations and letting the Kiwi pick out passes. Although hand-offs have become more common in a league where spacing is prioritised, it is still a difficult coverage to defend. The opposing big man may not be confident stepping out towards the perimeter and is forced to defend in an uncomfortable situation which is the ideal situation for the Thunder.
2. Mid-Range Money
Oklahoma City has been proficient from mid-range and a lot of the offense has materialised from this area of the floor. It has been common for Chris Paul to drop into this zone and take elbow jumpers, as has been true for Dennis Schroder.
Against Denver, this is an area which can exploited due to the Nuggets’ defensive scheming. Denver, like most teams in the league, scheme so that the least efficient shot is sacrificed. In practice, this means that the three-point shot and the layup are defended really tightly while the mid-range is defended loosely. Oklahoma City are not like most other teams in the league, they have at least two players who can cook from this area and can punish Denver’s tactical decisions. One Thunder player getting hot from the mid-range area will cause Denver’s scheming to be adjusted on the fly which will create open opportunities elsewhere. Looking further ahead to the play-offs, it is valuable for the Thunder to have guys who can knock down looks from mid-range because the game changes.
Defences key in and take away good looks; you need players who can score effectively on ‘bad looks’. The best example of the mid-range’s value was last season in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Kawhi Leonard carried the Raptors’ offence when Philly had taken away easy shots.
3. Chris Paul Post-Up
Oklahoma City ran a lot of post-up situations for Russell Westbrook last season and it was one of the few efficient looks which Westbrook managed to generate. The post-up worked for Russ because he was too strong and too fast for the defense to stop. The same evolution occurred in Houston, Mike D’Antoni had experimented with the post-up in regards to Chris Paul. D’Antoni looked at using this action as a way of masking Paul’s inability to create separation from the defender, it slowed the game down and gave him an opportunity to beat his man using his intelligence and ball-handling skills.
For the Thunder, Paul has not posted up all season, but it could be an interesting wrinkle for Donovan to add to the offense. Paul is a smaller guard but he is powerfully built in the lower body which allows him to bump defenders and create space to get a layup off. Paul is also comfortable shooting fadeaways out of this situation which adds another variation to this particular play.
Nuggets of Gold
1. Jerami Grant Returns
Jerami Grant will return to Oklahoma City for the first time since his trade in the summer. Grant spent three seasons with the Thunder in which he developed from a hyper-athlete to a forward who was defensively versatile. Grant has settled nicely into a bench role for Nuggets as another rangy, mobile defender who can be relied upon to space the floor effectively.
2. Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr was taken by the Nuggets at the end of the lottery by the Nuggets in 2018. There were huge concerns about Porter’s injury history and whether he could have a strong career at the NBA level. MPJ was expected to be a top five pick before his injury but the concerns caused him to slide down the draft boards into the perfect situation.
Denver already had more than enough wing talent, which allowed Porter to develop slowly and get healthy. He has emerged this season as an important part of the Nuggets’ rotation, he is a big wing to score the ball effectively while being able to cover multiple positions on defence. This has been a weakness in the Nuggets’ roster for a few seasons especially when it comes to defending guys like Paul George, LeBron James or Kevin Durant. The match-up on defense was often Will Barton defending taller, stronger players which was difficult for Denver to manage. Porter’s emergence gives them the length to defend bigger wings.
I know that the All-Star game has passed, but I feel like I have to talk about the ending of the game. It was exceptional in my opinion — that final quarter felt like a play-off game with how hard that the players were playing. The most surprising aspect of the game was that defense was actually being played instead of the usual layup line that this game turns into. Kyle Lowry took two charges. When was the last time that this happened in an exhibition game?
The Elam Ending is an innovative idea and I expect the league to look at this idea in more detail. It is common knowledge that Adam Silver would like to have a mid-season tournament like other sports around the league. In football (soccer), most leagues will have a domestic mid-season tournament. In the Bundesliga, the tournament is called the DFB-Pokal trophy. As a football fan, I like this concept but it has to be executed correctly. Early competition rounds can be a little boring and I could see the Elam Ending being used to ensure exciting games throughout the competition.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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