Start time: 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcasters: Bally Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
In the last few days, the Thunder have made a concerted effort to tank. The injury to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander started Oklahoma City on this road but the decision to sit Al Horford made the Thunder’s aims clear. Sam Presti wants a high draft pick in the 2021 and will do what it takes to make that reality possible.
Oklahoma City have struggled to win without Shai but there have been encouraging signs of development in the last few games. Although the Thunder lost to the Mavericks on Monday night, Pokusevski played well and looked nothing like the overwhelmed rookie that he was at the start of the season.
The Raptors have been reeling over the last month. The Raptors have not looked like the well-oiled, slick team that suffocated rivals in the Eastern Conference defensively. The championship window is definitely closed and we have seen Masai Ujiri move to rebuild the roster. A Kyle Lowry trade did not happen at the deadline but it is evident that Ujiri is embracing youth.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
Since Aleksej Pokusevski returned from the Bubble, he has looked confident and has played with a swagger. Pokusevski looks much closer to the player who was draining shots effortlessly in preseason than the timid, overwhelmed rookie who was gun-shy. Aleksej had another strong game against Dallas on Monday.
Pokusevski finished with 21 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists on relatively efficient shooting. His all-around impact was impressive and his shot was wet throughout the game.
Poku’s role has shifted over the last few weeks; Coach Mark has put Pokusevski into actions where he handles the ball a lot more than he did previously. In his career at Olympiakos, Pokusevski was deployed as a point forward by his coaches. We saw occasional glimpses of Poku’s passing ability earlier in the season but there always seemed to be a degree of hesitancy.
Aleksej looks happy as a point forward and has started to flash the potential that led him to be a first round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Poku’s passing is finely balanced between moments of brilliance and madness. Aleksej is capable of running the offense smoothly but he likes to try these outrageous passes that would be amazing if he pulled the pass off perfectly.
Poku’s a risk-taker on the court and the Thunder should encourage his creativity. His game needs refinement but Pokusevski’s audaciousness should not be dumbed down. Aleksej’s scoring has also taken a leap. Pokusevski has grown to be more comfortable in shooting off the drive; his pull-up mid-range jumper has been a bright spot in an inefficient scoring arsenal this season.
Mykhailiuk has played six games for the Thunder and one thing is clear from this small sample; Svi’s confidence as a player is off the charts. Mykhailiuk is not scared of any shot on the court and is willing to get his own shot at all times.
Svi’s belief in himself does pay dividends; the Thunder can rely on him to take shots and create offense. There is always the worry that Mykhailiuk’s willingness to score ticks over into being a detriment for the Thunder but Svi is a young player and there will be plenty of time to smooth out the rough edges in his game.
In the game against Dallas, Mykhailiuk had 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. His scoring was efficient and Mykhailiuk slotted into a starting role without much disruption. Svi does not bring the same level of defense that Lu Dort does but he filled in pretty nicely.
The Thunder’s bench unit has been a surprising positive all season long and it was no different on Monday night. The Thunder’s bench unit scored 37 points and contributed a third of the Thunder’s total points.
As a fan, I did not expect the bench to be this effective before the season started. Oklahoma City’s bench just seemed to lack depth and it was believed that OKC would lose a lot of games as a result of the bench.
However, the opposite has been true. The bench, regardless of who played in the unit on the night, has performed really strongly. Kenrich Williams, Mike Muscala and Hamidou Diallo were all key contributors during the first half of the season. Hamidou Diallo is now in Detroit. Mike Muscala no longer plays regular rotation minutes for the Thunder.
Despite all of the changes and roster subtractions, the bench has continued to do really well. Ty Jerome has joined Kenrich Williams as a driving influence on the reserves. Jerome’s shooting and playmaking have gone some way to make up for the value that Diallo brought to the Thunder.
The Toronto Raptors have struggled this season and have drifted towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference. In the first year post Kawhi, the Raptors were able to be a tough playoff team on their defense alone. The combination of Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby played some of the best defense that I have seen in quite a while.
The departures of Ibaka and Gasol took away the Raptors’ depth. Kyle Lowry is still a quality NBA player but his impact on the game has declined slightly this season. Lowry impacts every aspect of the game but his efforts are no longer enough to carry the Raptors to the playoffs.
Masai Ujiri has known that the end of this era of Toronto basketball was coming to a close for a few years. Toronto’s cap was managed in such a way where Ibaka, Gasol and Lowry would all come off the books within the space of two years.
The game tonight is a key fixture in the tank race. Toronto are only 1.5 games ahead of the Thunder and a win against the Raptors will pull the Thunder away from the cellar of the NBA. Oklahoma City want a top-five pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and a win against the Raptors will make that possibility much more difficult.
It was announced the other day that Moses Brown would be signing a four year contract worth $6.8m. Brown has emerged as a prodigious big man since returning from the Bubble and this contract is a reward for his play.
The contract itself is a steal for the Thunder when you consider Moses’ contributions on the court and his growth potential. The Thunder have been excellent at developing young players with the Blue recently and Moses is just another example of the Thunder doing savvy business.