Start time: 8 p.m. (CT)
Broadcasters: Bally Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
In the Thunder’s last game, Oklahoma City was handily beaten by the Philadelphia 76ers. Joel Embiid was imperious as he dominated inside and led the Sixers to victory. Oklahoma City notched another loss, but there were positive signs for the Thunder. Tony Bradley had a strong game. Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort returned from injury and made valuable contributions to the team.
In contrast, the Utah Jazz is cruising through the Western Conference. Utah has led the pack all season long, and Quin Snyder’s men are not slowing down as we enter the final furlong of the season. Utah is the first team to reach 40 wins, and the game on Tuesday will be a tough test for the Thunder.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder
The Future of the Team
Throughout the season, we have seen a distinct shift in the sort of player that Sam Presti wants for the Thunder roster.
In previous years, Presti seemed to favor filling out the roster with long, athletic wings who competed hard defensively but did not bring much in terms of shot creation.
Andre Roberson, Terrance Ferguson, Josh Huestis, and the first two years of Hamidou Diallo slide into that mold.
That template has been ripped up and thrown away in favor of taking guys who have a feel for the game.
Ty Jerome is an excellent example of the Thunder’s shift in focus. Jerome is not a particularly athletic guard, but he’s a savvy passer and a capable shooter.
The same can be said for Theo Maledon, the 2020 second-round pick.
For the last two years of Russell Westbrook’s tenure in Oklahoma City, it felt like Presti was zagging when the league was zigging by focusing on length while every other team was trying to build rosters that focused on spacing. The Thunder’s shift in focus reflects the NBA’s current meta; shooting and passing are the essential things in today’s league.
The additions of Gabriel Deck and Vasilije Micic will mean that the Thunder will have a roster that is heavy on high-IQ guys who are very good at passing the ball. The decision to add two relatively unknown international players is a Spursian move; San Antonio was famous for finding gems overseas that instantly impacted the Spurs.
It is pretty clear that Sam is drawing a lot of influence from San Antonio’s philosophy and also the Thunder’s success last season. Oklahoma City was hugely influential the previous season and beat expectations because every player in the starting lineup could make plays for teammates. The Thunder took the Rockets to Game 7 because Houston could not deal with having to make multiple defensive rotations on every single possession.
The decision to sign two players from the EuroLeague, who are 26 and 27 respectively, could indicate that the timeline has moved up for the Thunder. As a fan, I expected a long, drawn-out rebuilding process, but this decision would suggest otherwise.
The Deck signing is curious. Oklahoma City has never signed a player from the EuroLeague midseason. I think this move could shed light on what Presti is considering going into the 2021 NBA Draft.
The 2020 NBA Draft showed that the Thunder are risk-tolerant when taking young, promising European players. Aleksej Pokusevski was a risky pick at #17, and nobody quite knew what Theo Maledon’s potential is. The Thunder may be looking to Europe again for the 2021 NBA Draft.
Deck was signed from Real Madrid, and Real Madrid happens to have Usman Garuba, one of Europe’s most promising young players. The Thunder would not have signed Deck at random. Sam Presti is meticulous in his research on players. For OKC, watching Deck will mean that the Thunder will have also had the opportunity to evaluate Garuba.
Garuba is an exciting prospect, and it isn’t easy to nail down his draft position. I have seen Usman ranked as high as of late lottery and as low as the end of the first round. 13 years ago. Presti took a flyer on a late first-round pick from Spain. That player’s name was Serge Ibaka. Presti has a history of picking raw, intriguing prospects from overseas late in the first round, and it is not difficult to see him doing the same thing with Usman.
Garuba currently stands at 6’8, and he has a 7’2 wingspan. Usman is also just 19 years old, and I would not be surprised to see him grow even more. Garuba is a competent shot blocker and a savvy help defender who is already a talented rim protector from the film that I have seen.
Usman is still pretty raw in terms of scoring and relies on his motor to get looks at the rim. His shot mechanics are pretty clean, and with refinement, he will be a decent catch and shoot the guy from downtown. As a player, Garuba projects to be a versatile, smart forward with a great motor.
Ty Jerome missed a lot of time this season, but he has firmly planted himself in Coach Daigneault’s rotation due to his value as a playmaker. Ty Jerome has provided steady, reliable shot creation off the bench during a time when the Thunder’s rotation has changed on a nightly basis.
Jerome is not the fastest point guard around, but he can make up for his lack of athleticism by timing his passes and finding opportunities to get teammates open. His ability to see that pause to set up an assist is most notable whenever he drives to the rim.
He plays with a lot of patience and waits until he draws two defenders’ attention before making his move. When the strong-side helper decides to play one pass away and rotates onto Ty, he will make the kick-out pass to the corner and find the shooter.
The same can be said when the opposing big decides to help Jerome. Jerome takes his time before sliding the ball through the tiniest window to the big man sitting down low in the dunker’s spot. That short, sharp dump-off pass is simple, but it generates such a high-quality look for Moses Brown or Tony Bradley. Jerome does the simple things well consistently.
The Utah Jazz leads the league in 3PA; the Jazz currently averages 43.2 attempts per game from outside. Quin Snyder’s men have dialed up the volume from last season, and the increase in attempts has turned the Utah Jazz into an offensive wrecking the ball.
Over the last two years, Utah has ranked towards the top of the league in 3-point efficiency. Utah’s efficiency on the volume of looks that they take has meant that the Jazz has developed this ability to put games away with barrages from downtown.
For the Thunder to have any chance at winning this game, Oklahoma City needs to run the Jazz off the arc and funnel Utah into the mid-range. Utah is still adept at hitting mid-range looks, but it is the ideal defensive outcome for the Thunder. Giving up outside shots and looks inside to a team this potent offensively is just asking for trouble.
The Jazz starters are pretty small outside of Rudy Gobert. Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley are one of the smallest backcourts in the league. Royce O’Neal is just 6’4, and despite Bojan Bogdanovic’s size, he is a below-average rebounder for his position. The Thunder have to maximize this advantage and dominate the boards.
Limiting the number of offensive possessions that the Jazz have will hopefully slow their offense and keep the game close. Gang rebounding and winning those 50/50 plays will be crucial to the Thunder’s chances at winning the game.
Random side note
Darius Bazley returned against the Philadelphia 76ers, and Bazley looked pretty good on the court. He was active on the glass as per usual and scored 17 points on efficient shooting.
Bazley seemed pretty comfortable, and I will be interested to see how he fits into a much-changed Thunder team.
Bazley has the potential to be a good passer, and he will have plenty of opportunities to develop this aspect of his game in the last 19 games of the season.