On the second night of a back to back, Oklahoma City will play the Milwaukee Bucks, the juggernaut which is on track for a 70-win season. If the Bucks win seventy games, they will be the first team to do so since the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors who managed to win seventy three games. It is a team which is brilliant in the historical context rather than just in the present. The Thunder come into the game after grinding out a victory against the Kings, a typical game for Oklahoma City this season. A win against Milwaukee will be a league-wide statement of intent, it would emphasise that the Thunder are for real and should be feared in a post-season setting. Milwaukee come into this game after beating the Toronto Raptors in a preview of a potential Eastern Conference Finals. The game starts at 8:00 (EST).
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Chris Paul Takeover - Chris Paul has been the Thunder’s closer since the start of the year and he has performed admirably in this role. When the game gets tight, the ball ends up in Paul’s hands and he dictates the action. The spotlight falls onto Paul as he picks the defence apart and finds the opportunity to win the game. Against the Kings, it was no different as Paul scored nine points on three made field goals while also notching two assists. Paul is one of those players who gets better in clutch situations which has been one of the more important reasons in the Thunder grinding out victories game after game. Chris Paul's net rating in the fourth quarter is an astonishing +16.3, the type of mark which has only been beaten by a few players, one of these players is Paul’s team-mate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The numbers reflect Paul’s two-way contributions in the final stanza and prove that his contributions are winning contributions.
- Three Point Shooting - Milwaukee are one of the league's best defences and a lot of credit has to be given to Coach Bud for maximising the performance of his roster. However, the Bucks’ defensive scheming is fairly unusual compared to the rest of the league and has a weakness that can be exploited by opposing teams. A lot of teams in the league will run a coverage when the opponent is funnelled towards the mid-range area and allowed to shoot from this range. The relative inefficiency of a mid-range look for the average NBA player means that it is an acceptable loss for most NBA teams. The Bucks scheme differently and instead choose to give up shots from behind the arc. It has meant Milwaukee are difficult to break down and they cover all of the space inside of the arc. Milwaukee allows 38.7 field goals attempts from three-point range, no other team gives up this volume of looks from downtown. This can be an avenue for the Thunder to exploit against Milwaukee, Oklahoma City hit the Bucks with deep looks until they adjust. OKC are an average three-point shooting team at just 35.7% but they have certain players who can catch fire and make a difference from outside. Danilo Gallinari is comfortable shooting a high volume from deep, the same would go for Chris Paul.
- Schedule Loss - Oklahoma City have made a point of resting veteran players throughout the season to prevent fatigue from accumulating into injuries. Gallinari has benefitted from not playing certain games during busy parts of the schedule and it is one of the reasons why Gallinari has been available for the season as a whole. While I would love to see Oklahoma City go toe to toe with the Bucks, it may make more sense to rest veteran players and concentrate on winning games where the odds are a little more balanced. It is the second night of a back to back against a team which has only lost three games at home all season, it will be really hard for the Thunder to win against a fresh, hungry Bucks’ team. The Thunder will play a lot of games over the next ten days or so, sacrificing a game against Milwaukee may give OKC a better chance in these other games.
- Giannis - Giannis Antetokounmpo already has an MVP title to his name and will likely add another MVP to his resume at the end of the year. However, Giannis has not become complacent and has continued to develop his game so that he is more well-rounded. In the play-offs last season, we saw teams like Toronto have great success in slowing Giannis down by building defensive walls in the paint and forcing ‘The Greek Freak’ to make tough decisions. Antetokounmpo could either take a three-pointer or drive into a clogged lane where it was probable that the Raptors could steal the ball. It was one of the few flaws in his game last season and it is something that Giannis has addressed this season. Antetokounmpo is taking three-pointers in volume, he is taking 4.7 attempts per game from downtown. Giannis is only converting 31% of these looks but the willingness to shoot has forced defences to respect his shot. Defences have to play him more honestly on the deep shot which creates more space inside for driving lanes, the slight adjustment to his shot diet has made him a weapon that is more difficult to stop.
- Khris Middleton - Khris Middleton’s value on the Bucks has been a common talking point for a lot of the basketball media. Middleton’s fit as a reliable second option on the Bucks has been questioned and there was skepticism in the summer when Khris received a maximum contract from Milwaukee. Many journalists believe that Middleton was overpaid for his impact on the team. Khris Middleton must have heard these criticisms as he had put up his best season in response to the critics. Middleton is averaging 21/6/4 on 50/40/90 shooting, outstanding efficiency for strong production. He has solidified himself as the Bucks’ second option and a threat that opposing teams have to respect, Khris is one of those players who can get hot and drop fifty without too much trouble.
The Gallinari-Adams connection has been delightful to watch during the season. It has been a combination of smart passing, strong finishing and intelligent play as the Thunder's front-court worked a two man game with each other. Against the Kings, we saw the perfect manifestation of both players working in sync to create something special.