Start time: 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcasters: Fox Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
The Thunder sit at a crossroads in the Western Conference. Oklahoma City are only 2.5 games back from the Grizzlies and this game is significant in the race for the play-in tournament. Nobody expected the Thunder to be competitive this season but we have been proven wrong by this Thunder side.
In the last game, Oklahoma City took the Minnesota Timberwolves apart. The bench unit was exceptional on the night and words do not do justice to the clinic that Svi Mykhailiuk and Ty Jerome put on. Minnesota’s defense was sliced apart time and time again as the ball shifted around the court with pace. The Thunder harnessed the ball’s energy and found quality looks from downtown through all four quarters.
Memphis have also been a surprise this season; very few people predicted the Grizzlies to push for playoff basketball without Jaren Jackson Jr. Taylor Jenkins deserves a lot of credit for extracting the full potential out of his roster of young players.
In the 43 games that the Thunder have played this season, Oklahoma City have proven that they are not the cellar residing team that a lot of people expected them to be. The Thunder have outperformed expectations as a result of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander elevating his play to an All-NBA level and Coach Mark Daigneault finding ways to keep the Thunder competitive every single night.
We have seen huge amounts of growth from every player on the roster. Luguentz Dort has shown flashes of playmaking potential and has developed his feel on offense. Dort is no longer blindly gunning from downtown; he’s become better at identifying spots where his dribble penetration can hurt a defense.
Kenrich Williams has found a role on the Thunder where he is thriving. The fringe rotation guy who could not find minutes for the New Orleans Pelicans is gone. Kenny is now the consummate pro who comes off the bench and makes an instant impact. Williams has shown proficiency for ball-handling, creating his own shot and defending multiple positions.
You can go down the roster and see an improvement in every single player. Oklahoma City will likely end up trading away George Hill and Mike Muscala but I do not believe that this will have a significant impact on the team’s performance. The trade deadline was supposed to be the date when the Thunder’s tank started in earnest.
A top-five pick in the 2021 NBA Draft was the objective of this season. However, that objective has drifted away from the Thunder as the season has progressed. The Minnesota Timberwolves are 10-33, the Pistons and the Rockets both stand at 12-30. For the Thunder to get down to that level of losing, Oklahoma City will have to lose 75% of the remaining 29 games.
I do not know whether that level of losing is attainable with this current roster. The play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Theo Maledon makes it very difficult to believe in this possibility. It is also important to consider the reward for tanking the season from this point onwards.
The Thunder getting a top-five pick would be amazing but there is no guarantee of getting a chance to draft a generational player. Is there any real benefit in sacrificing 29 games of great youth development for the 7th pick in the Draft? At this moment in time, it feels like the Thunder trying to make the playoffs is a better option given the limited possibility of getting a top-five pick.
Whatever happens, this season is one of the most fun Thunder seasons that I can remember. There was a sequence in the fourth quarter of the Timberwolves’ game where I was just laughing in sheer disbelief. The 90 seconds when Mykhailiuk effortlessly drained two sidestep threes before setting up Kenny for an easy three were unbelievable. The Thunder broke the Timberwolves by playing attractive, effective team basketball.