Start time - 6:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
The Thunder’s last game against the Minnesota Timberwolves was another loss but it was a performance that was concerning. Minnesota blew the Thunder out with ease and did not look troubled after a 45 point second quarter. It is the sort of the game where the Thunder did not play many meaningful minutes and these minutes are highly important when it comes to developing young players.
I was concerned by the fact that the Thunder struggled to manage their temperament during the second quarter and allowed Minnesota to get quality looks from downtown repeatedly. After the first few defensive breakdowns, the Thunder did not mentally reset and the errors just kept on coming.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander again had a fantastic game from the field. Gilgeous-Alexander’s form over the last month or so has been incredible; he is driving to the rim constantly and finishing at such a high level. In the last five games, he is shooting 62.4% on 2-pointers.
The other thing worth noting is that Gilgeous-Alexander has trimmed the fat off his shot diet. SGA has been more selective with his 3-point attempts and his improved shot selection has led to an uptick in efficiency. Shai is still experimenting with his step-back and sidestep jumper but these shots are now starting to come in the flow of the offense.
At the start of the season, it did feel that the Thunder’s offense would lose a little rhythm whenever Gilgeous-Alexander would isolate and cook his man. His offense feels less forced now which is only benefitting the rest of his team.
The final point to focus on is that Gilgeous-Alexander has started to embrace the mid-range area again. In his first season in Oklahoma City, Shai liked to use a step-back jumper around the elbow to create space and beat the defense. That shot type evaporated in his second season but it now seems that Shai has brought that shot back into his game.
Over the course of the season, Shai is averaging 2.0 field goal attempts per game in the mid-range area. Over the last five games, Gilgeous-Alexander is taking 3.2 shots per game in the same shooting zone.
The mid-ranger is not the most efficient shot in basketball but it is an immensely valuable shooting zone for a three-level scorer to access. Long twos place pressure on the opposing coach to adjust their defensive scheme and take away a shot that can be considered a low value, low risk look.
Basketball is a zero sum game and every decisions has consequences. Choosing to focus on taking away long twos by having help defense stationed at the elbows will create more space for the player in the deep corner to shoot open jumpers. His shift in shot diet has made the Thunder more dynamic in the half-court setting.
The Thunder will be playing the Utah Jazz tonight. Utah are currently #4 in the Western Conference and will be a difficult match-up in a playoff setting. The Jazz are incredibly well-coached and should be able to make it out of the first round. However, there is no guarantees on this front.
Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr are expected to return for the Denver Nuggets, a team that has performed exceptionally. Denver have stayed above water and will be a really tough team with their core players available.
The Jazz tend to struggle against lengthy, athletic teams and the Thunder will be able to exploit this weakness. Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley are fine, skilled players but they lack size and do not respond well to pressure defense.
Oklahoma City can press Mitchell with Darius Bazley and harry him into taking too many shots. Encouraging Mitchell’s hero ball tendencies will disrupt the Jazz’s offense and force them to play outside of the system that has made Utah successful.
Coach Snyder’s coaching system is dependent on managing the delicate balance between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Too few touches for Rudy and the Jazz’s offense becomes too perimeter-oriented. Gobert is not a great scorer by any means but he must be guarded whenever he gets a duck-in or rolls to the rim.
The key to beating Utah is disrupting their sharp passing game and forcing the Jazz into isolation basketball.