Start time - 6:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
The Thunder’s last game against the Minnesota Timberwolves was arguably the most demoralising loss of the season. We have seen the Thunder lose by epic proportions but this loss stood out for all of the wrong reasons. Oklahoma City had a full roster and still could not lay a glove on the T-Wolves.
It was frustrating to watch the Thunder throw away the principles and concepts that have made the defense sound over the last month or so. The effort was not good enough and neither was the communication. Minnesota got countless open looks off Thunder defensive breakdowns.
Luckily, Oklahoma City will get the chance to put that loss behind them tonight against the Denver Nuggets. Denver are an injury-ravaged team that is currently being carried by the reigning league MVP, Nikola Jokic.
Jokic is the fulcrum for the Nuggets and impacts every aspect of the game. His passing allows his teammates to move without the ball and attack space. Denver like to put Jokic in the post and have him facilitate from the low block. When he gets the ball in that area of the floor, the change in tempo is undeniable.
His teammates start to cut with more purpose safe in the knowledge that Nikola will find them in good spots to score the ball. Jokic is their point guard and he has become pretty much unguardable. There is no player in the league who can hit from all three levels and run the offense like a floor general at his size.
In the past, Nikola’s defense was a weak point in his game but things are different this season. I would not say that Jokic is a great defensive player but he has certainly been competent on the less glamorous end of the floor. He is reading the game and putting himself in position to defend the rim.
Jokic is not a traditional anchor in the sense that he does not rely on length and verticality to send shots into the stands. Nikola protects the rim by using his length and size to force the opposing team to take really difficult inside looks. He cuts off the angle and only leaves the difficult finish on the table.
Jeremiah-Robinson Earl will have his hands full tonight which is why the Thunder have to defend as a team and limit Jokic’s ability to get touches in his preferred areas of the court. I would like to see the Thunder be aggressive in jumping the passing lanes whenever the Nuggets try to make an entry pass.
The other point worth noting is that the Nuggets tend to fade badly in the closing stanza of the game. Denver have the worst Net Rating in the league in the fourth quarter and often undo all of the good work done earlier in the night. Oklahoma City cannot allow their heads to drop if the Nuggets build up a good lead as the game could be competitive late on if the Thunder play with consistency.
On the point of consistent, focused aggression, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander must step up to plate. Shai wanting to pass the ball and get his teammates involved is a positive attribute but he was trying to be too unselfish on Friday night which only led to turnovers and stagnant offense.
Gilgeous-Alexander is best when he is going downhill and puncturing the painted area on every single possession. His driving game leads to silky smooth finishes around the rim and good looks for his teammates to feast on.
Oklahoma City were terrible against Minnesota the other night; this game is the perfect opportunity to stop the rot and get the team’s momentum heading in the right direction again.