Start Time: 8 p.m. CT
Broadcasters: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
It is too early to make any sweeping statements, but the Oklahoma City Thunder certainly qualify as one of the surprise teams of this young (and frequently postponed) season. The Thunder sit at an even 6-6, with a couple impressive wins on their resume.
The Denver Nuggets have a nearly identical record at 6-7, and are also one of the “surprise teams” so far this year. However, Denver’s performance is the “my engine died” kind of surprise rather than the “I found $20 on the sidewalk!” variety.
The Nuggets entered the season with high expectations after their run to the Western Conference Finals in the Orlando Bubble, but Denver have stumbled out of the gate. The Nuggets have not looked right defensively to start the season.
Here are three things to watch as these two surprising teams face off:
- Can anyone stop Nikola Jokic?
You cannot blame the Nuggets’ struggles on Nikola Jokic, or at least not on his offense. The patron saint of big boned hoopers everywhere is leading the league in assists and is averaging a triple double. Stopping Denver’s attack starts with stopping, or at least containing Jokic.
The Thunder are about league average on defense, and they have gotten there through a mix of factors. The Thunder use a conservative defensive scheme that does not force a ton of turnovers but the scheme has held opponents to a relatively low field goal percentage. OKC have also benefitted from some shooting luck.
On the personnel side, the force of nature that is Lu Dort has contributed heavily to a sturdy defense. Al Horford, when available, has been effective in providing interior defense and old man smarts.
Horford missed Friday’s game against the Bulls and was set to miss Sunday’s game with Philadelphia before it was cancelled. Even if he is available on Tuesday, do not expect him to shut down Jokic. Jokic can create in so many ways that the best outcome for Al will be to slow Jokic down.
If Horford is unavailable again, OKC will probably start Isaiah Roby. Roby has shown some sizzle on the offensive end, but he is a work in progress on defense. OKC’s defensive rating has cratered with him on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. Oklahoma City could be in for a long night if Roby starts again.
2. Can Shai top a career night?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a career high 33 points in OKC’s comeback overtime win over Chicago last weekend. He was magnificent and gave the team a scoring punch as they roared back in the second half. In overtime, his playmaking took center stage as he dimed up Mike Muscala for two huge threes.
The Thunder have had four days off due to the cancelled game on Sunday. Can SGA follow-up his career night with another dominant performance? OKC may need him to score 30 points again to hang with one of the league’s best offenses (Denver is 4th in offensive rating at 116.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass)
3. Can OKC step up on defense?
Friday’s comeback win was exciting, but OKC were in a huge hole to close the first half due to some very poor defense. OKC’s players struggled to stay attached through screens on and off the ball in the first half.
The Bulls took advantage of the separation and lit the Thunder up from deep. Zach LaVine did most of his damage from behind the line as he consistently got goods looks without much coverage in the first half.
OKC will need to do a better job defending shooters and fighting through screens in this game. Jamal Murray can do just as much damage as LaVine if OKC allows him to stroll into easy looks.