Start time: 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcasters: Bally Sports Oklahoma and NBA League Pass
Last night, Oklahoma City competed hard against the Charlotte Hornets. For three quarters, the two injury-ravaged teams exchanged blows but Charlotte were eventually able to pull away at the start of the fourth quarter. In many ways, this was the ideal game for the Thunder at this point in the season. Oklahoma City improved their chances of getting into the top-five and all of the young guys got real competitive minutes for their development.
Over the course of the last five or six games, Pokusevski has blossomed into being a solid, intriguing young player. Aleksej has found his confidence and that confidence is translating into his scoring. Pokusevski is averaging 18 points per game over the last five games on relatively efficient shooting.
Cleveland come into this game on the back of a win against the San Antonio Spurs; that win broke a five game losing streak in which the Cavaliers were handily beaten during a brutal portion of their schedule. Cleveland have a soft schedule for the rest of the season and will be able to accumulate wins in their push for the play-in tournament.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
After last night’s loss, the Thunder are only 1.5 games back of having the fifth worst record in the league. The Washington Wizards beat the Orlando Magic as a result of a Russell Westbrook triple double and improved their win-loss record. The Wizards winning closed the gap between the Thunder and Washington in the race for a top-five pick.
The omens are good for the Thunder as we enter the final stretch of the season. Washington and Cleveland have really soft schedules and I would expect both of these teams to start picking up victories. Moreover, the Cavs and Wizards will play each other three times in the remaining 22 games. One of these teams will win these games and the Thunder should be able to get into the top-five.
In contrast, Oklahoma City will play Philly twice, Utah twice and Phoenix in the last quarter of the schedule. With the Thunder’s current injury issues, the only really winnable games remaining on the schedule come against Cleveland, Washington and Detroit.
The Thunder have gone 3-7 in the last ten games and it is clear that Oklahoma City are embracing the tank. However, Aleksej Pokusevski has been an exciting bright spot for the Thunder. Coach Mark Daigneault has moved Pokusevski into a role where he handles the ball a lot more and he has flourished.
Running an offense is really difficult in the NBA but Pokusevski has taken to playmaking like a duck to water. He looks really comfortable surveying the floor and deciding where the offense flows. With the ball in his hands, Poku is aggressive and has no issue with creating his own shot.
Aleksej has also shown a proficiency for picking out teammates in positions where they can score the ball. Pokusevski played point guard at Olympiakos and it is clear that he understands the art of playmaking. Poku knows how to pass his teammates into quality, efficient looks.
He still needs to work on ball retention when he drives but I feel that the area of his ball-handling that needs work is his control of pace. At the moment, Pokusevski plays at one pace and one pace only. Aleksej plays methodically and relies on his length to beat defenders off the dribble.
His use of length is good but the lack of variations in pace means that the defense knows how to guard him every single time down the floor. A turn of pace or knowing how to decelerate effectively will make Pokusevski more unpredictable as a ball-handler and more difficult to guard.
In the last few years, we have seen that slowing down is hugely effective in creating pockets of space where the ball-handler can fire a pass to an open teammate. James Harden and Luka Doncic are exceptional at decelerating quickly and using that slither of space to find a corner shooter. Aleksej has the feel and skill to develop the ability to change tempo on offense; it is up to Coach Mark to draw this talent out of him.
In the last four games, Oklahoma City have started really slowly in the first quarter. The offensive production does not make for good reading at all. 13 points in the first quarter against the Suns, 19 points against Portland and 19 against Detroit. OKC’s offense eventually picks up in the second quarter but by that point, the Thunder are fighting back from a double-digit deficit.
The Thunder’s offense has been really sluggish and a key reason for the anaemic offense is a lack of continuity. Oklahoma City have been able to weather roster fluidity fairly well this season but without steady, reliable players who can settle the team down, it is difficult to perform well.
The other issue for the Thunder is a lack of spacing. Oklahoma City do not have much spacing at the moment due to injuries to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley and Mike Muscala. The decision to sit Horford means that OKC do not having shooting from the center spot.
Oklahoma City are light on shooting and do not really have the pieces to fix this issue. Pokusevski and Maledon can be relied to take threes but these two players are on the ball quite a lot and do not have many opportunities to get spot up threes. Svi Mykhailiuk and Ty Jerome will shoot the ball and have been the source of Oklahoma City’s outside shooting in the last five games.
In theory, Kenrich Williams and Isaiah Roby are efficient floor-spacers but the reality differs from the numbers. Kenny and Isaiah both prefer to catch the ball at the arc and attack off the drive. Roby likes to score at the rim and Kenny hunts for long twos as it is a good shot for him.
I cannot fault either of these players for playing smart basketball but the desire to score inside creates complications for the Thunder’s offense. The opposing team can sit in and pack the paint safe in the knowledge that they will not be burned from downtown.
Since LeBron James left Ohio for Los Angeles, Cleveland have been engaged in a lengthy rebuild. Koby Altman has started to assemble a nice core of young talent. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen all have a lot of promise and I would not be surprised to see the Cavaliers pushing for the playoffs next season if their core can stay healthy.
I have always liked Collin Sexton and his fierce, combative play but Darius Garland has emerged as a real talent. Garland has always been able to get buckets but his playmaking has really improved. Garland is averaging 5.9 assists per game for the season and was the driving factor behind Cleveland’s win against San Antonio.
Dylan Windler, Jarrett Allen and Larry Nance Jr are ruled out of tonight's game due to injury.
Bally Sports has been the Thunder’s broadcaster for a week now and so far, it has been a mixed bag. Bally Sports’ graphics are pretty clean. A lot of Thunder fans have been unable to watch their team due to availability issues which is obviously a huge issue.