Start time - 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
Oklahoma City come into tonight’s game on the back of a loss to the Indiana Pacers. The Thunder were generally pretty competitive in that game but the contest seemed to get away from the men in Thunder Blue in the second half.
Rick Carlisle opted to play a zone coverage which made it very difficult for the Thunder to score. The painted area was packed with Pacers’ jerseys which meant that there was a lot of sideways passing and rushed late shot-clock looks from the Thunder. The offense lost rhythm and did not look completely comfortable.
The Thunder’s tank was also shored up in Friday night’s game. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepped on the foot of a Pacers’ players and sprained his ankle. Gilgeous-Alexander left the arena with a protective boot around his foot. Thunder Film Room reported all of the details on Twitter.
Thunder Injury Update: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sustained a right ankle sprain in last night’s game against the Indiana Pacers. He will be re-evaluated post All-Star break, per Thunder PR.— Thunder Film Room (@ThunderFilmRoom) January 29, 2022
The ankle sprain will mean that Shai will miss the next two weeks of games, a stretch where the Thunder’s schedule is quite soft. It is not intentional tanking on the Thunder’s part but it does help the team in the end goal of getting a top-5 pick.
For Shai, the injury is bitterly disappointing. Gilgeous-Alexander has played at an incredible level since the turn of the year and had been making a real case to be picked in the All-Star game. He will again miss out on all of the festivities.
Shai’s injury will now mean that Josh Giddey will see a lot more of the ball. Giddey’s playmaking load will increase and Oklahoma City will be dependent on Josh to run the offense. It is a huge task for Josh to take on but he has done well without Shai in the past.
In the three games that Giddey has played without Shai, he has averaged 17.0 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds per game. It is a small sample size but the numbers do show that Giddey is able to raise his game and lead a team.
I also expect the Thunder to play differently without Shai. Gilgeous-Alexander’s driving game creates downward pressure on the rim and generates open looks from deep for his teammates at a strong rate. The Thunder will struggle to replicate the same sort of pressure.
Coach Mark Daigneault would do well to lean into Josh’s strengths and have the team move the ball around. Giddey’s greatest strength is his passing and willingness to find unusual angles. That ability is wasted next to guys like Darius Bazley who hunts his own shot relentlessly.
Luckily, the Thunder’s opponents are quite weak. The Portland Trailblazers are in the twilight of the CJ-Dame era. This combination led Portland deep into the playoffs but it seems that the energy has fizzled out. Lillard is currently recovering from surgery and the emergence of Anfernee Simons has lessened the importance of McCollum.
The Blazers are heading towards the end of an era in much the same way that the Thunder did four years ago. I remember the last year of Westbrook-PG and the agony of supporting the Thunder. We all wanted to believe that the Thunder could win a championship with Russ, PG, Steve and Jerami Grant but reality was inescapable. For Portland fans, they are now coming to terms with the same sort of feelings.
As teams go, the Blazers are pretty terrible defensively. Portland are third last in Defensive Rating and it is not hard to see why. Chauncey Billups runs a three-guard lineup with Norman Powell, CJ McCollum and Anfernee Simons.
None of these players have the size to guard forwards nor the willingness to fight over screens and make life difficult for the attacking team. The porous perimeter defense means that Jusuf Nurkic is often exposed defending the interior and he simply cannot deal with the sheer volume of unchallenged drives.
The Thunder can do as the Bulls did last night and run up the score in the interior. Chicago scored 52 points in the paint and those points were the bedrock of a comfortable win. Providing that Oklahoma City pass the ball precisely and play with purpose, those inside points will come about pretty easily.
This game is important in the race for a top-5 pick but I do have a feeling that the Thunder can win this one. It will be a challenge for the Thunder but I am excited to see Giddey step to the fore and lead the line for the Thunder.