Start time - 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
At this point in the season, every game matters for Oklahoma City in the race for a top-5 pick. A win can seriously affect the team’s chances of obtaining the chance to draft at the top of the lottery. Last year, the Thunder were undone by the simple fact that they won too many games and ended up with #6.
Sam Presti pulled the rabbit out of the hat and made an excellent selection in the form of Josh Giddey but this draft is not comparable in the slightest. In the 2021 NBA Draft, you could legitimately make a case that seven of the players taken had realistic All-Star potential. Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green were the obvious examples but you could also make a case for someone like Josh Giddey or Scottie Barnes.
In this draft, the talent pool of potential All-Stars is smaller. From the research that I have done, I believe that only three players in this Draft have that sort of ceiling. Jabari Smith Jr, Chet Holmgren and Jaden Ivey. You could make a case for somebody like Banchero but I still have my concerns about his athletic ability.
To have any chance at drafting that level of player, the Thunder must get a top-5 pick. It is one of the reasons why the win against the Indiana Pacers was bittersweet. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Tre Mann slice the defense apart with his considered, technically sound scoring.
However, that win came with a cost. Oklahoma City are closer to Sacramento and Indiana in the win totals that you want the team to be. Tonight’s game is very similar in that regard. A win for the Thunder will mean that Sacramento is only one game back from the top-5.
I have been very pleased with the performances that I have seen out of the younger players. Tre Mann, Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon have all shown the sort of growth that earns them an opportunity with the Thunder next season.
Tre Mann’s play over the last two weeks has been fantastic. At the start of the year, Mann did not always know how to create a good shot for himself which meant that his offense was often rushed. He has slowed down and is playing a more mature brand of basketball.
Mann’s dribble moves have been purposeful and he has been more confident in driving to the basket. His skilful, tight finishing around the rim is forcing the defense to play him honestly in that shooting zone which has only opened up space for Mann to drain sweet looking floaters. He is starting to benefit from the virtuous cycle that starts with efficient scoring inside.
Pokusevski is another player who I was worried about. Poku came back to the main roster at the start of February and it was difficult to work out where he would play. Towards the back end of last season, Pokusevski looked comfortable handling the ball and organising the offense.
Those opportunities are not there for him this year due to the Thunder’s abundance of guards. Pokusevski has raised his game to meet the challenge. His scoring has been more efficient since the start of the year but the biggest improvement is his calmness.
In the past, Pokusevski’s play was a rollercoaster of epic highs and puzzling lows. He would pull up around the elbow for a soft, delicate jumper and then toss the ball straight into the stands. There was no consistency and a lot of silly errors. Aleksej has cut a lot of those errors out and has started to take a better quality of shots.
Maledon’s on-ball defense has improved and he is starting to figuring out how his length can bother opponents into errors. I am also impressed by the quality of his passing; Maledon has become better at taking care of the ball while still retaining his ability to find odd, creative angles. I feel pretty comfortable in Maledon being in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
There is a lot for the Thunder to be happy about even if winning in the short-term does not satisfy the goal of getting a top-5 pick. All of that being said, tonight’s game is crucial and I am hoping for the best case scenario. A close loss where the Thunder play well would do wonders for the players’ development and the lottery odds.