Start time - 10:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
The Thunder have been on a good run of form lately; Oklahoma City have won four of their last five games but the games won do not quite measure the team’s improvement enough. The best compliment that I can pay to this Thunder side is that the team looks pretty competent and capable.
The team’s level of performance is a far cry from the awful performance against the Mavericks a few weeks ago. The reasons for the change in fortunes can be explained by a few different factors. The first factor being the benching of Darius Bazley.
Bazley’s play has somewhat stagnated with the starting lineup; we are all aware that he brings very solid defense but his play cannot be defined any further than that. When he plays with Shai, Lu and other shot creators, his worst tendencies are exaggerated.
His role on the Thunder has been much debated and Coach Mark took the decision to move Bazley to a bench role to see how he performs going forward. So far, the change has only paid dividends. Darius’ play off the bench over the last few games has been so much sharper than what we have seen with the starting lineup.
Josh Giddey is also a driver of the Thunder’s improved performances. For a few weeks, Giddey seemed to fall into a rut where he played too passively. Giddey is not an efficient scorer at the moment but when he actually presents a scoring threat, he creates so much space for the other guys and generally creates better scoring opportunities.
The other point worth noting is that Giddey’s increased aggression is improving the Thunder’s transition scoring. Giddey is hunting out rebounds and then firing the ball down court to Luguentz Dort or Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. His accuracy as a distributor is creating better chances whenever the Thunder get into these situations.
Giddey’s passing in transition means that the Thunder can play more vertically and challenge the opposing defense in more ways than one. Opposing defenses have become used to Shai walking the ball up the court and getting the Thunder into their offense. Hitting the opposing team with quick-strike, precise passing in transition does not allow the defense to get comfortable.
The final factor behind the Thunder’s improvement is Covid. Covid has depleted teams and created a sense of uncertainty for all organisations. It is difficult for a coaching staff to game plan without fully knowing the roster available to them. It is even harder for players to develop chemistry without extended minutes together.
In the last five games, we have seen the Thunder play weakened teams and pick up victories. There was no Jonas Valanciunas for the Pelicans, a player who has feasted on the Thunder’s interior defense this season.
In a strange way, the Thunder have benefitted from Covid; we have seen hungry, young guys receive the opportunity to make a case for regular rotation minutes. Tre Mann and Darius Bazley went into Covid protocols before last night’s game. Their absences opened up minutes and two players stepped up massively.
Aaron Wiggins was taken 55th in the 2021 NBA Draft by the Thunder and was not expected to feature in the coaching staff’s plans this season. He has spent most of his time with the Blue honing his craft. Wiggs started against the Pelicans and played excellently. His defense was solid and he was productive for the Thunder without having a ton of touches.
Wiggins’ willingness to cut and move the opposing defense around meant that he was a frequent beneficiary of the team’s ball movement. Wiggins kept on getting open and draining shots.
Aaron Wiggins scored 24 points on the night and punctuated his performance with an audacious lob finish. Wiggins took his opportunity and has made a real case for a starting spot. His smart, decisive play fit neatly next to Shai, Lu and Josh, perhaps more neatly than Bazley has ever done.
Theo Maledon has been something of a forgotten man for the Thunder this season. He led the team in minutes played last season but has not really featured for the Thunder. Theo has been down in the G-League working on his game while Tre Mann and Ty Jerome have played the backup point guard role.
Maledon rose to the challenge and put in one of his strongest performances in quite some time. The sparkle and confidence that Theo displayed early in his career was on display. Maledon played with a swagger and trusted himself to knock down shots. He led the floor for the Thunder and provided the playmaking for the bench mob to go wild.
It is fair to say that the Thunder are in a good space going into tonight’s game against the Kings. Conversely, Sacramento seem to be drifting towards another aimless season. The Kings were demolished by the Grizzlies the other night and looked listless.
For two quarters of basketball, the Kings hung tough with a scorching hot Memphis team. However, they came out of the half looking as if they had gone twelve rounds with Tyson Fury. Sacramento’s play was lethargic and the Grizzlies feasted on the continued defensive lapses. Memphis put the game away and the Kings headed towards another loss.
Alvin Gentry spoke bluntly after the loss and called on his players to reflect on the loss and perform better. The Kings’ lack of effort and dependence on moments of individual brilliance from Fox or Haliburton is a recipe for disaster.
Tonight’s game should be routine business for the Thunder even with the Covid absences. Sacramento are in a bad place right now and are no way close to being a competitive team. A win for the Thunder would remarkably put them in the playoff hunt; those are words that I did not expect to write this season.
Who wins tonight?
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