Start time: 7:00 PM (CT)
Broadcasters: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
On Thursday night, the Thunder scratched out a win in Arizona against the Suns. It was a game of runs but Oklahoma City were able to slow down Phoenix and grind out a win in the fourth quarter. The Thunder are going to need to perform at a high level to beat the stacked Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets have been scorching hot offensively over the last two weeks; the acquisition of James Harden has meant that the Nets are scoring the ball at an elite rate. Brooklyn comes into this game on a three game win streak.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
Dort vs Harden
One of the most interesting stories of the playoffs last season was the match-up between James Harden and Luguentz Dort. Harden is one of the best scorers of the last ten years; he makes the process of getting buckets look effortless at times. Luguentz Dort made ‘The Beard’ look mortal.
In many ways, that series against Houston brought Luguentz Dort to national prominence. Dort’s excellent defense and his ability to make Harden work for every single basket was impressive. To my memory, I have never seen a player reduce Harden’s effectiveness as much as Dort did.
We will finally see Dort and Harden go at it again tonight. Dort’s success in the playoffs came from his physicality and his tenacity when guarding Harden. Harden is a player who likes to use his frame to create separation for his floater or step-back jumper. Harden is adept at finding that slither of space that he needs to get a score.
Dort met Harden’s willingness to create contact with his own strength. He did not allow Harden to create space and he frequently used his body to create contact. James did not like the bruising play at all and he was very reticent to attack the rim. Dort’s physicality took away one of Harden’s key weapons and made the Rockets’ offense less varied.
Over the last five years, switching on pick and rolls has become increasingly common. Switching assignments does not allow the ball-handler time to dish the ball and find an open shooter. The Thunder did not switch at all on Harden; Lu Dort stuck with his assignment through every single screen set by Covington and Tucker.
In the playoffs, Harden likes to hunt favourable match-ups. Dort was always in Harden’s face and James could not get a breather against a more favourable match-up. Whenever Harden wanted to run an action, he would have to battle against Dort’s defense.
Dort’s has to be aggressive tonight and he has to beat Harden to his spot. Harden has been more of a playmaker during his first two weeks with the Nets but this does not mean that his scoring threat has gone away. Dort will be relied upon to neutralise Harden’s ability to score the ball.
Attack Brooklyn Down Low
When the Thunder last played the Nets, Oklahoma City had a lot of success attacking the Nets’ weak interior defense. Brooklyn only had one plus defender at center three weeks ago and now Jarrett Allen is no longer on the roster. The Harden trade meant that Jarrett Allen was sent to Cleveland.
In the last four or five games, Brooklyn have experimented with the center position. DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and Kevin Durant have all seen time at the spot. None of these players are good on defense. Jordan is immobile and struggles to stay in front of smaller, quicker players.
Steve Nash has opted to close games with Jeff Green or Kevin Durant playing the 5. The Thunder will have Al Horford available for the game against Brooklyn. Horford will have a mismatch whenever he plays in the post. His size allows him to back down Durant and flip shots into the basket. His shooting from the mid-post means that he can shoot over the top of Jeff Green.
Horford presents match-up issues for the Nets and Coach Mark has to take advantage of this weakness. The Nets can put a game out of sight with their scoring; Oklahoma City will need to find easy scores on the floor to try and keep up with Brooklyn.
Aleksej Pokusevski’s offense has looked really raw and there have been times when Pokusevski has not been able to buy a bucket. It has been difficult for the Serbian forward to contribute on offense during the first 17 games of the season.
However, Pokusevski’s defense has been a different story; Poku has looked really solid on defense. I must admit I did not expect Pokusevski to be good defensively during his rookie season. Rookies, even those who played professionally in Europe, tend to struggle with the defensive concepts employed by NBA teams,
Moreover, the dimensions of the basketball court differ greatly in Europe. Courts in Europe tend to be narrower which means that lengthy defenders can occupy more space. NBA courts are wider and there was a concern that Pokusevski would be uncomfortable defending in more space than he is used to.
Poku’s defense of the perimeter has generally been sound; he is adept at using his length to wall off driving lanes. Stronger players have been able to knock Poku off his spot and get to the rim for looks but his length serves as a deterrent. He has been good in scramble situations and his close-outs often cause hesitation by the offense.
Pokusevski’s ability to close out in these situations is arguably the most impressive aspect of his defense. He does not make the mistake of giving the offensive player a chance to get inside by being overly aggressive. Young players tend to struggle with the speed of close-out but this does not seem to be a problem for Pokusevski so far.
In the Phoenix game, there were a few occasions when Chris Paul was isolated on Pokusevski. Paul is a master of drawing contact and getting himself to the line. Paul will take advantage of any loose appendage; he did so every single game for the Thunder last year.
Pokusevski always contested the shot but crucially, he did not make any contact with Chris. Pokusevski often closed out to the side of Paul instead of contesting the shot head on. It was a smart decision by Poku; he stopped Chris from getting a good look from three and did not risk giving up avoidable free throws.
Two weeks ago, Brooklyn pulled one of the biggest trades of the last five years. The Nets pushed their chips to the center of the table and acquired James Harden for all of their picks and depth. Harden is a top-five player; trades involving players of his calibre do not happen all that often.
The effects of the trade can already been seen on the court. Brooklyn have been white hot offensively. Durant, Irving and Harden have fitted together neatly so far; the issue of chemistry has not yet reared its head.
On talent alone, the Nets will be one of the best offensive teams that we have ever seen. The only real comparisons that spring to mind are the 2016-17 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors. The Nets have elite isolation scoring, high-level playmaking and deadeyes from deep.
However, Brooklyn have been terrible defensively since the trade. The Nets have posted a defensive rating of 115.9 since January 14. The atrocious defense has hugely reduced the impact of the Nets’ lethal offense. Brooklyn’s net rating during this time period is only 0.8; for context, the 2018-19 Raptors posted a net rating of 6.0.
When the trade to form the ‘Big Three’ occurred, there were questions about how Harden, Irving and Durant would co-exist on the court. All three have been ball-dominant players during their careers and have been the premier scoring option on their respective teams.
Harden has adjusted his role and is facilitating play more than he did during his Houston days. Over the last seven games, Harden is averaging 11.9 assists per game. He is not monopolising the ball and he is looking to create for others. I would say that James is playing a lot closer to the player we saw in his first season under Mike D’Antoni.
Oklahoma City are 8-9 on the season and are 1.5 games back from the Portland Trailblazers in the fifth seed. The Thunder have a chance to insert themselves into the playoff conversation during this homestand. Oklahoma City will play Brooklyn, Houston twice and Minnesota twice during this five game stretch. All of those games are winnable for the Thunder.