Monthly Archives: December 2013

Portland Trailblazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 31 of 82)

portland vs thunder

  • When: Tuesday, 31 December 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Division rivalries are always fun because it’s like you are playing against your cousin. All the teams are, for the most part, close geographically and are guaranteed to play each other 4 times in a season. That makes for a sense of notoriety. But when you are the alpha dog in the division, it makes it even more interesting when a division rival comes out of nowhere to threaten your crown. The Oklahoma City Thunder are like Jay-Z and Kanye West. They are on the throne. And everyone else, including Tuesday’s opponent, the Portland Trailblazers, is watching the throne.

This will be the second meeting of the season between these two teams. The Trailblazers won the first game, 111-104, behind a strong 3rd quarter that saw them take an 11 point halftime deficit and convert it into a 3 point lead by the beginning of the 4th quarter. From there it was back and forth, with the Trailblazers coming up with enough stops to win the game. Kevin Durant finished with 33 points and Russell Westbrook had 21, but the two Thunder superstars were eclipsed by a seemingly unstoppable LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 38 points and 13 rebounds.

The Opponent

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers

The Trailblazers come into the game with a 24-7 record, and are one of the real surprises in the league. They lead the league in team scoring, at 108.6 points per game, but struggle defensively, giving up an average of 102.6 points per game, good for 26th in the league. Portland came out guns blazing in their first 29 games, going 24-5, but have lost their last 2 games in dramatic fashion on game-winning shots from the opponent. The Portland attack is led by last season’s Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, who is joined by Wesley Matthews, who has become a dead-eye 3-point shooter this season. Defensively, Nic Batum is one of the better SF in the league, and also gives the team some pop offensively. LaMarcus Aldridge has seemingly put it all together this season and is having a career year, averaging 23.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. And Robin Lopez does a great job of being their garbage man. The bench is good, and with so many shooters (Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright) it can be explosive at times.

Probable Starting Line-Up

Portland Trailblazers

  • PG – Damian Lillard
  • SG – Wesley Matthews
  • SF – Nic Batum
  • PF – LaMarcus Aldridge
  • C – Robin Lopez

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – The Trailblazers have 5 regular rotation players that shoot over 36% from 3-point territory. With an “inside to outside” offense, Portland is dependent on Aldridge drawing the defense into the paint, allowing the shooters to get open. The Thunder will have to defend Portland in the same fashion it defended Houston two nights back. The perimeter defenders will have to stay on the shooters and not get sucked in.

2. Rebounding – It will be extremely important that the Thunder bigs not allow Portland to gobble up offensive rebounds. In the last game, Lopez and Aldridge combined for 9 offensive rebounds that led to 12 extra points for Portland. Take away half of those, and it’s an entirely different game for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers

3. Pace – As strange as it seems, the Trailblazers are the more half-courted oriented team between the two. Even though they lead the league in scoring, they work their offense from inside to out with Aldridge being the post presence. If the Thunder can push the pace, with Portland struggling on the defensive end, I could see the Thunder outlasting Portland, especially when they are on the second night of a back to back.

Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 30 of 82)

durant harden thunder rockets

  • When: Sunday, 29 December 2013 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

We’ve seen this script before. The Oklahoma City Thunder facing the Houston Rockets in a game without Russell Westbrook. This is the second game for the Thunder without Russell Westbrook after his 2nd arthroscopic knee surgery in less than 3 months. They eeked out a win on the road against the Charlotte Bobcats, 89-85, in their last game. In the game, Kevin Durant had 34 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists, while Thabo Sefolosha had possibly his best offensive game of the season with 12 points on 3/5 shooting from the 3-point line.

The Thunder won the season series against the Rockets 2-1 last season and then met them in the first round of the playoffs. The Thunder ended up winning the series 4-2, but lost Russell Westbrook after Game 2 to a torn meniscus that required surgery.

The Opponent

lin howard harden rockets

The Houston Rockets come into the game with a 21-11 record and a 3 game win streak. They are the 3rd highest scoring team in the NBA at 106.3 points per game, but are only 20th in opponent ppg, giving up an average of 101.8 points per game. Offensively, the Rockets are a full throttle attacking team, led by former Thunder player James Harden. The 3-wing lineup of Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Harden all have the ability to either penetrate into the lane, draw fouls, and make 3’s. Inside, free agent acquisition Dwight Howard is starting to look like the Howard of the Orlando days and not the oft-injured Howard of last season. He’s a walking double double machine, and provides them with semblance of defense. The bench is veteran-laden and scrappy, with players like Francisco Garcia, Aaron Brooks, and Omri Casspi getting minutes for them.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Houston Rockets

  • PG – Jeremy Lin
  • SG – James Harden
  • SF – Chandler Parsons
  • PF – Terrence Jones
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Defenders earning their money – This is the reason why Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha have a place in our starting line-up. For games like this. Dwight Howard is the type of center that Perkins is made to handle. He isn’t overly adept at offensive and stays in the post. Steven Adams will also be important in defending Howard, especially if foul trouble comes into play. Sefolosha had a lot of success in the first two meetings between these teams last season holding Harden to 9-33 FG shooting. Then Harden erupted for a career high 46 points in the 3rd game. Harden is the type of player that can get hot quickly, but can also be a chucker that’ll keep shooting to get back his rhythm.

harden sefolosha ibaka thunder rockets

2. Perimeter defense – If Perkins and Adams can handle Howard on the inside, there should be no reason why the perimeter defenders need to stray from the shooters. Houston has almost cloned what Orlando had 3 seasons ago, with Howard in the middle and a bunch of shooters around him. Also, keeping Lin and Harden out of the lane will be extremely important to handling Howard and the shooters.

3. Dribble penetration – While Howard may be known for his defense, the wing players for Houston are definitely not known for their defense. Reggie Jackson, Kevin Durant, and Jeremy Lamb should be able to get through the first line of defense and cause havoc in the paint for the Thunder.

Music and Russell Westbrook’s new setback

westbrook thunder

Sometimes, in difficult times, people turn to music to help ease their struggles. Just jump in the car or slip the headphones on, and let Pandora, Spotify, or whatever you use take you to where you really want to go. That’s how I find myself relating to Russell Westbrook’s latest setback. On December 27th, the Oklahoma City Thunder sent out a press release advising that Russell Westbrook had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and would be out until after the All Star break. The press release stated that while Westbrook had not been experiencing any lingering pain in his knee, there had been some acute swelling that had occurred as of late. The team performed an MRI which showed an area of concern and decided to do the arthroscopic surgery. Those are the current facts the Thunder organization is letting out.

In this song, Jay-Z raps about how he and a cohort got into the drug trade together, but things quickly soured when his friend got picked up by the police. While the premise of the song (drug trafficking, snitching, police involvement, etc) holds no water to the Thunder and their players, hopefully, the chorus is a different story. It was all good just a week ago. In fact, it’s been all great for the past 6 weeks. In that span, the Thunder have gone 17-2 and have undoubtedly joined the ranks as one of the top title contenders in the league. It wasn’t that they were just winning games; they were beginning to throttle and dismantle opponents with their aggressive, attacking brand of basketball. And that was all spearheaded by the return of Russell Westbrook in the 3rd game of the season.

Now, we’re back to where we were in the beginning of the season. The angst that we are feeling now is the same angst that we should have been feeling for the first 4-6 weeks of the season, which was originally the amount of time Westbrook was supposed to be out when he had his first arthroscopic surgery on October 1st. But he came back about 5 weeks earlier than expected and was playing extremely well as of late.

Kevin-Durant-and-Russell-Westbrook thunder

Kevin Durant will never verbally admit it, but he knows that he can’t win a title without a healthy Russell Westbrook. He got a taste of that in the playoffs last season, and will get another swig of that vile flavor for the next 4-6 weeks. As apt as Reggie Jackson has been at handling the starting point guard duties in Westbrook’s absence, he lacks that “it” that drives this team. More specifically, he lacks that “eff you and the horse your rode on” mentality that Westbrook brings to the court that permeates to his teammates through the process of teammate osmosis. Without that, the Thunder are literally a shell of themselves. Now mind you, that shell is better than 75% of the league, but not enough to get the Thunder to the top.

We Thunder fans know what we have in front of us. We know, when the team is healthy, we have one of the top 3 teams in the league, without question. But this is going to hurt. In the span that Westbrook is supposed to be out, we are going to face Portland (three times), Houston (twice, DAMN YOU PATRICK BEVERLY), Minnesota (twice), San Antonio (at their place), Golden State, and Miami (probably twice). Can we beat these teams? Of course. But the margin of error goes down to basically zero when we play these opponents. The measuring stick of the next 4-6 weeks may be completely different than the measuring stick heading into the playoffs if Westbrook comes back healthy. For some of us Thunder fans, a 4-6 week coma may be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Everyone loves the back-up quarterback in football. Team execs get wooed by 1-2 game performances during a season and try everything to get that back-up quarterback to be their starter. Sometimes it works. And sometimes a back-up quarterback is just a back-up quarterback. It’s no different in the NBA when it comes to back-up point guards. Three years ago, when the young Thunder were first coming up, everyone was looking at Eric Maynor and wondering, “Wow, he could start for half the teams in the league.” In hindsight, though, Maynor was probably nothing more than a product of not only the system, but also of playing next to James Harden.

reggie jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson recently signed with uber-sport agency CAA in anticipation of his upcoming extension/restricted free agency eligibility. After this season, Reggie Jackson is eligible for an extension from the Thunder. If the Thunder decide to not extend Jackson this offseason, then he enters into restricted free agency in the 2015 offseason, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet and the Thunder have 3 days to match it. The latest example of the “best back-up point guard” getting a lot of love is Eric Bledsoe of the Phoenix Suns. For the three season prior to this one, Bledsoe was Chris Paul’s back-up in Los Angeles and even played a lot with Paul in small ball lineups. His athletic style of play garnered many looks from fans on up to team executives. Since Bledsoe is now starting for the Suns, the next guy on that “best back-up point guard” totem pole is Jackson.

Jackson proved his mettle in last season’s playoffs, subbing in for the injured Westbrook, and putting on a Westbrook-lite performance. He has shown some improvement on his mid-range and 3-point shooting and is starting to learn how to manage being a floor general and a scorer. All the media pundits on ESPN, TNT, and NBATV are starting to rave about Jackson and that usually means added exposure. That added exposure usually equates to not only added scrutiny, but also added praise if he continues to perform as he has all season. If Jackson increases his averages during this 4-6 week period, especially against the upcoming competition, he may likely see his bank account skyrocket in the foreseeable future.

Bill Simmons and Patrick Beverly. Yeah, laugh it up fellas. We’ll get the last laugh when its all said and done.

russell-westbrook-dunk-bosh thunder

All three of these songs have different elements of Westbrook’s game and how his knees react to it. If there’s one thing about Westbrook, it’s that he didn’t change his game at all, knees be damned. His first game back he was dunking and flying all over the place. While the timing may have been a bit off and the explosiveness may have gone down by 5%, the game did not change. Westbrook’s only speed is still GO! A mad man on the court that just flies around and revels in the havoc and chaos. But in the end, is Westbrook’s style of play conducive to his future health?

Three surgeries in a little over 8 months. It doesn’t matter if it is a knee or a tooth. If you dig metallic objects into flesh in an invasive fashion three times in an 8 month period, that area is never going to be 100% the same. I think the problem with Westbrook was that he rehabbed from the knee injury, but never got the time to recover. He went directly from rehabbing from the meniscus tear to rehabbing from the arthroscopic surgery to playing his brand of basketball. All that contorting and friction on his knees was dangerous before he suffered an injury. But now, after two surgeries, this was almost bound to happen. He never had a chance to recover from all the surgeries. The future ramifications of this is unknown. Athletes have arthroscopic surgeries all the time, but those that rely heavily on athleticism, tend to suffer the most from repeated surgeries. If there’s one man that can buck the trend, though, I hope it’s Westbrook.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Charlotte Bobcats preview (Game 29 of 82)

westbrook kidd gilchrist thunder bobcats

  • When: Friday, 27 December 2013 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, NC

Coming off of a rousing performance in Madison Square Garden on Christmas, the Oklahoma City Thunder look to keep things going as they travel to Charlotte to take on the Bobcats. In that Knicks games, Russell Westbrook secured a triple double by the middle of the third quarter and Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka combined for 53 points on 20/30 shooting. The bench played spectacularly and kept their foot on the pedal for all of the 4th quarter. Of course, the Thunder were aided by the fact that Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton were out because of injury.

The Thunder won the season series against the Bobcats last season 2-0. The most memorable of those games was the one played in Oklahoma City, where Charlotte came into the game with a 7-5 record and a little bit of a puffed up chest. The Thunder proceeded to take a 40 point lead into halftime and tacked on 5 more points by the end of the game. The loss was so severe that Charlotte didn’t win another game for over a month. The Thunder have won 5 straight meetings between the two teams encompassing the last 3 seasons.

The Opponent

zeller tolliver walker henderson jefferson bobcats

In the midst of all the carnage that is the Eastern Conference, it’s good to know that one of the teams with a losing record is actually improving from last season. Charlotte didn’t win their 14th game last season until March 12th, but already stand at 14-15 this season. The defense is much improved under new head coach Steve Clifford, and the team is finding ways to win close games. They’re the 2nd worst scoring team in the league, at 92.4 points per game, but combat that by being the 3rd best at opponent’s points per game, at 93.6. The Bobcats’ offense is initiated, and usually, finished by PG Kemba Walker. Joining him in the back court is Gerald Henderson, who is quietly one of the better 2-way guards in the Eastern Conference. Up front, free agent acquisition Al Jefferson has paid dividends, almost averaging a double double with averages of 16.7 points and 9.6 rebounds. Their bench depth has been decimated by injuries lately, with Jeff Taylor going down with an Achilles tear and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still recovering from a broken hand.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Charlotte Bobcats

  • PG – Kemba Walker
  • SG – Gerald Henderson
  • SF – Anthony Tolliver
  • PF – Josh McRoberts
  • C – Al Jefferson

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

EDIT: Russell Westbrook had arthroscopic knee surgery and will be out for 6-8 weeks.

3 Keys to the Game

1. Force the issue – The Bobcats have depth issues due to injuries. Drive the ball inside and try to force fouls. The more fouls you force, the more the chances that someone like Jeff Adrien or Jannero Pargo will have to minutes.

2. Perimeter defense – Al Jefferson will do what he does. The key will be not completely collapsing on him and giving streak shooters like Walker and Ben Gordon the opportunity to heat up.

durant ibaka thunder

3. Small ball – We usually react to teams and play small ball in response to their line-up. I think this would be a good game to force the Bobcats to play small ball. A line-up where Jefferson and McRoberts would have to keep up with Ibaka and Durant would be wonderful for transition opportunities.

Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks preview (Game 28 of 82)

durant shumpert knicks thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 25 December 2013 at 1:30 PM CST
  • Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

One of the major storylines heading into this season was the Battle of New York. Who would take the Big Apple: the New York Knicks or the Brooklyn Nets. While there may still be a competition between the two teams, the two teams have woefully underachieved to the point where their meetings are only of regional importance, not national importance. The good news for both teams is that the Eastern Conference is so bad that they are still in the thick of things as far as playoff seeding goes.

This Christmas match up is the first meeting of the season between the two teams. The teams split the season series last season as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony battled for the scoring championship. Anthony ended up winning the scoring title 28.7 ppg to Durant’s 28.1 ppg.

The Opponent

iman-shumpert-knicks-carmelo-anthony-tyson-chandler

The Knicks come into the game with a 9-18 record, which surprisingly finds them only 2 games out of the 8th seed. The Knicks came into this season with high expectations, but the season started in turmoil after JR Smith was suspended for the first 5 games due to a substance abuse violation and Tyson Chandler came down with a broken leg a week into the season. Add to that the unknown that is Amare Stoudemire’s health and the seemingly frayed relationship between the team and SG Iman Shumpert, and you have a recipe for chaos…which has ensued. The Knicks, thought to be one of the more offensively minded teams with Anthony, Smith, and Raymond Felton at the helm, find themselves scoring only 95 ppg, good for 25th in the league. Surprisingly, they are one of the better defensive teams in the league, in terms of opponent’s ppg at 97.9 ppg, good for 8th in the league.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

New York Knicks

  • PG – Beno Udrih
  • SG – J.R. Smith
  • SF – Iman Shumpert
  • PF – Carmelo Anthony
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – The Knicks are currently a jump shooting team that isn’t making their jump shots. That doesn’t mean that they don ‘t have gunners on their team that can’t catch fire on any given game. This will be key to the Thunder’s success in this game. Stay on the shooters and limit their opportunities at open looks.

westbrook smith thunder knicks

2. Bench play – With the Knicks bench being so decimated by injury, especially at the guard position, look for the Thunder to take advantage of this with Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Derek Fisher.

3. Wounded animal – Don’t discount the Knicks being at home and playing with a mentality of a wounded animal. Primetime game, MSG, prime Western Conference opponent. You can be sure the Knicks will be giving the Thunder their best shot. Hopefully, the Thunder remember the Toronto game and come out sharper for this one.

To all my readers – Thank you for your support and Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy your day with friends and family, and as always, THUNDER UP!!

Toronto Raptors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 27 of 82)

adams draft thunder

  • When: Sunday, 22 December 2013 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

There was once a time when Oklahoma City Thunder fans really cared about the Toronto Raptors’ record. Not only would we scour the box scores for our games, but we’d also look at the Raptors’ games. Reason being, of course, because we owned the Raptors’ pick in the 2013 draft as part of the James Harden trade. The restriction was that the pick had to be between selections 4-14. Luckily the Raptors missed the playoffs and with that pick, the Thunder selected Steven Adams. Fast forward to this season, and we could really care less about Toronto’s record. The Thunder have beat the Raptors 3 straight times spanning the last two seasons.

The Opponent

valanciunas derozan raptors

The Raptors are team that you could term, “in flux”. The hired Masai Ujiri as general manager to take this middle of the road franchise, blow it up, and quickly rebuild it, like he did with the Denver Nuggets. His latest big move was to trade Rudy Gay and his $17.9 million dollar price tag (and possibly $19.3 million dollar next season if he opts in) to the Sacramento Kings for bit parts, most of whom are expiring after this season. That clearing of cap space will come in handy next season and beyond. But in the now, the Raptors are a bad team. Their back court is led by PG Kyle Lowry and wings Terrence Ross and Demar Derozan. All three players are talented, but are inefficient and need a high volume of shots to get to their averages. The front court is one of more promising ones this side of Detroit in the Eastern Conference. Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson are threats for a double double every time they step on the court. The bench play is a lot like the team itself, which is to say, not very good.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Toronto Raptors

  • PG – Kyle Lowry
  • SG – Terrence Ross
  • SF – DeMar DeRozan
  • PF – Amir Johnson
  • C – Jonas Valanciunas

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Rebounding – Toronto is a terribly inefficient team from the perimeter. Their wing players who average at least 10 minutes per game combine to shoot 39.9% from the field. Lots of misses means lots of rebounds. Valanciunas and Johnson are adept at grabbing rebounds, especially offensive rebounds (grabbing 5.3 offensive rebounds per game between them).

westbrook perkins derozan johnson raptors thunder

2. Bench play – Toronto’s bench is veteran laden, but really lacking when it comes to anything offensive. This may be a time to take over the game as the Thunder’s bench has been humming lately.

3. Complacency/Trap Game – This game has all the makings of a trap game. Playing at home, against an inferior opponent, having just played the rival Spurs, and not playing again until the prime time tilt against the Knicks on Christmas. All a bad team needs is hope. It’s Christmas season, but let’s not be in a giving mood tonight.

Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs preview (Game 26 of 82)

durant duncan leonard neal spurs thunder

  • When: Saturday, 21 December 2013 at 7:30 PM CST
  • Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX

On any given night in the NBA, the most important focus is on the game itself. There’s rarely any future implications on games, especially in December. Then there are those teams that know, barring injury, that they are good enough to be at or near the top of their conference when the season ends. Those handful of teams know that not only do they have to build a resume of winning basketball, but they also have to beat the teams they are battling for seeding. This is where the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs find themselves.

To most, this is just a game in December. But to these two team, they know this game may have further reaching implications for late May and into June. The Thunder won the first meeting between these two team 94-88. This will be the 2nd of 4 meetings between the two teams. In the first meeting, the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 10 in the 3rd quarter to turn a halftime deficit into a lead heading into the 4th quarter, and never looked back. Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson led the way, with 24 and 23 points, respectively, while the Spurs had more of a balanced attack with 8 players scoring at least 6 points.

The Opponent

duncan bonner ginobili green spurs

The Spurs come into the game 1/2 a game behind the Thunder with a 21-5 record. As is usually the case with this team, they are at or near the top of the league in points per game, assists per game, and opponent’s points per game. They run one of the better systems in the league and have the right players for that system. The offense is led by PG Tony Parker, who is day to day with a shin injury. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are dangerous at the wings, as Green is a 3-point specialist and Leonard is great at slashing to the basket. Up front, Tim Duncan may be showing signs of aging, but still requires attention from opponents. The bench is one of the more veteran-laden in the league led by Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Bellineli, and Patty Mills.

Probable Starting Line-ups

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Marco Belinelli
  • PF – Tim Duncan
  • C – Tiago Splitter

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace – In the last 2 seasons, the Thunder have shown the ability to “out-athleticize” the Spurs. With Westbrook and Jackson pushing the tempo throughout the game, the Spurs have no answers for the speed that the Thunder play with.

jackson adams ginobili thunder spurs

2. Kevin Durant – With Kawhi Leonard out due to a dental procedure, the task of guarding Durant will fall on Belinelli and Ginobili. Durant’s eyes and smile just got bigger.

3. Remember May and June – With one already in the bag, securing another victory over a top Western Conference contender will do wonders for the team moving forward. If the Thunder are able to win the season series versus the top teams in the West, that will only help them in hopefully securing home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Chicago Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 25 of 82)

rose westbrook

  • When: Thursday, 19 December 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The tale of Russell Westbrook is often intertwined with the tale of Derrick Rose. Both are hyperactive point guards who break down defenses by getting into the paint and causing chaos. It is in that chaos where they find most of their success. But those intertwined tales have now become cautionary tales within the past year. Both guards suffered and recovered from serious knee injuries. Both started the season. Only one is still playing.

The loss of Derrick Rose to a meniscus tear decimates any chance the Bulls had of coming out of the Eastern Conference. With that, another season (3 in a row) goes down the drain for a team that many had tabbed as a darkhorse contender. Now begins the internal struggle within the organization in choosing between rebuilding or regrouping.

This cautionary tale should remind Thunder fans of why the organization had to trade James Harden. With max contracts for Rose and Carlos Boozer, and near max contracts for Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, the devastating blow that was the ACL injury to Rose set the organization back at least a season. The meniscus tear to Rose is probably the coup de grace for this core group of Bulls players. Losing a main player is never easy for a franchise, but it is especially difficult when the team is financially handcuffed from making any moves that can help in the short term. With a similar salary cap structure to the Bulls, the Thunder decided that they couldn’t support 4 max or near max contracts plus the contract of Kendrick Perkins. The Harden trade provided the Thunder with not only salary cap relief, but also with assets to build a support system around the nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Chicago Bulls

  • PG – DJ Augustin
  • SG – Jimmy Butler
  • SF – Luol Deng
  • PF – Carlos Boozer
  • C – Joakim Noah

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Bench Play – One of the things that suffers when you have financial restraints on a team is the bench. With their inability to re-sign Nate Robinson and Marco Bellineli, the bench play for the Bulls is average at best. The Thunder may be able to pull away during those 2nd quarter / late 3rd quarter stretches when the bench is primarily playing.

lamb fisher ibaka thunder

2. Russ – With injuries to Rose and Kirk Heinrich, the Bulls have DJ Augustin and Marquis Teaque to man their point guard position. Feast, Russell.

3. Rebounding – The Bulls’ only saving grace may be rebounding. The front court combo of Boozer, Noah, and Taj Gibson can gobble up rebounds on any given night. Prevent this and you prevent any second chance opportunities for the Bulls.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets preview (Game 24 of 82)

westbrook thunder rocky nuggets

  • When: Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 8:00 PM CST
  • Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

Even though it may not be a long road trip, the stretch the Oklahoma City Thunder are on has to be a bit grueling. In the past two weeks, the Thunder have had a 3 game road trip that began in California and ended in New Orleans. Then they went back to OKC for a game and then back on the road for two. Then back home for two, and now they find themselves back on the road for a one game trip to the Rocky Mountains. If that’s tiring to me, I can’t imagine how it feels to an athlete. With all that said though, the Thunder have won 14 of their last 15, and hold the only undefeated home record in the league.

This is the 2nd meeting of the season between the Thunder and their division rival Denver Nuggets. The Thunder won the first meeting 115-113, after being down by 9 points to begin the 4th quarter. In that game, Kevin Durant (38 pts/8 rebs/6 asts) and Russell Westbrook (30 pts/12 rebs/7 asts) both nearly notched triple doubles, while JJ Hickson  and Ty Lawson led the way for the Nuggets.

The Opponent

chandler hickson shaw nuggets

The Nuggets come into the game with a 14-9 record, but haven’t really had any consistency throughout the season. The started the year 0-3, then won 11 out of their next 14 games, and are currently on a 3-3 stretch in the last 6 games. They usually play at a breakneck speed, but only average 102.1 points per game (good for 12th in the league). Injuries have played a part in their inconsistent start as Javale McGee has been out with a stress fracture in his leg and Danilo Gallinari is still recovering from the ACL tear he suffered last season. The Nuggets’ attack is spearheaded by Ty Lawson, who does his damage by penetrating into the lane, causing the defense to collapse. Wilson Chandler and Randy Foye are above average shooters who are usually the recipients of Lawson’s drives. Inside, the duo of Kenneth Faried and JJ Hickson can gobble up rebounds and cause havoc with their energy. The Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the league, as evidenced by having 11 players who play more than 12 minutes per game (min: 20 games played).

Probable Starting Line-ups

Denver Nuggets

  • PG – Ty Lawson
  • SG – Randy Foye
  • SF – Wilson Chandler
  • PF – Kenneth Faried
  • C – JJ Hickson

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Control the boards – Hickson and Faried aren’t overly big, but they are extremely active and attack the boards, especially the offensive ones, with zeal. Because of their lack of size up front, the Thunder are usually forced to play small ball most of the time, with Durant playing a lot of 4 and having to match up with Faried and Hickson.

Denver Nuggets v Oklahoma City Thunder

2. Ty Lawson/Nate Robinson – The key to stopping the Nuggets is to stop the point of attack. Both Lawson and Robinson are adept at finding small cracks in the defense and exploiting them. As difficult as it is, Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Fisher have to stay in front of these two guards or the defense will collapse and chaos will ensue.

3. Bench play – With the altitude and Denver’s propensity to play small ball, the bench will play a huge factor in this game.

Trade Talk and the Importance of Jeremy Lamb

Utah Jazz v Oklahoma City Thunder

The trading deadline in the NBA may be February 20th, 2014, but the date that gets a lot of the movement started is December 15th, 2013. That is the date when most free agents who signed in the offseason become eligible to be traded. As that date approaches, the inevitable trade chatter starts to ramp up. If you are a team that holds many desirable assets such as good, young players on rookie pay scales, multiple first round picks, and expiring contracts, then your name is bound to show up in a lot of the trade talk.

And that is where the Oklahoma City Thunder currently find themselves. With young bench players on rookie scale contracts that are performing surprisingly well and a couple of semi-attractive expiring contracts (namely Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha), that trade chatter has already started to rev up about the Thunder. Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio had the following quip on his NBA Notes from December 9th:

Multiple league sources have said the Oklahoma City Thunder are willing to deal second-year guard Jeremy Lamb if they can find a more experienced (and consistent) player to come off the bench. Lamb has already been traded once – from the Rockets as part of the James Harden deal before last season.

Then Bill Simmons on NBA Countdown suggested that the Thunder should trade Lamb, Perkins, and 2 first round picks to the Orlando Magic for Arron Afflalo. Now this would usually be seen as conjecture on the part of a media pundit, but a lot of fans around the country see Simmons as something of an NBA savant who is the end all/be all when it comes to NBA information/predictions.

Adding fuel to the trade talk fire, Reggie Jackson, who has been performing almost at ‘Harden as a 6th man’-like levels throughout the season, recently signed with powerhouse sports agency CAA. This is the same agency that represents Dwayne Wade, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony to name a few, and also partners with Roc-Nation, who represents Jackson’s teammate Kevin Durant. Did I mention that Jackson has a possible extension looming this offseason? Scary thought, especially when we all remember what happened the last time a great Thunder bench player was up for an extension.

Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson

Whenever these trade talks start to ratchet up in December, it’s always important to remember the previous 3 months when there were hardly any trade talks. That period from September through November is usually reserved for roster building and evaluation. Yes, big trades do happen during that time frame, as we saw with the Harden trade last season, but those types of transactions are usually reserved for February, June, and July. When the trade talk is quietest amongst media members is actually when the trade talk is loudest amongst GMs. It is during this roster building and evaluation period that GMs try to gauge the interest of the “tradeable” assets on their rosters. It is when the posturing and positioning of “GM chess” occurs.

When you hear phrases like “multiple league sources”  or “an Eastern/Western Conference GM said”, just know that the news coming from that report may not be current. Take for example Jeremy Lamb, who was a very attractive asset heading into this season. The Thunder probably did their due diligence in June during the NBA draft to see if there was anything of value that they could get for Lamb. Also, during the preseason, when Lamb was struggling with his shot, there was probably some probing by Thunder GM Sam Presti to see if anyone would bite in return for an experienced bench player. But that was when Lamb was an unknown commodity, not only on the court, but also to other teams. But now, after averaging 10.5 points and 2.5 rebounds on 53% FG shooting and 39% 3pt FG shooting over the past 12 games while playing good defense, Lamb is not only a known commodity, but also a key component for a championship contending team. While the rumors of the Thunder shopping Lamb may be true, they may also be 3-6 months old.

jeremy lamb thunder 2

If you follow the Thunder and are familiar with their salary cap structure, then you would know that they value production at a low cost. The ability to take one player and flip him into 2 or 3 players of great value while preserving their cap space was one of the main reasons the Thunder traded James Harden. Could history repeat itself with Reggie Jackson? That will be the most pressing issue for the Thunder moving forward. But, while there are similarities between the Harden/Jackson comparisons, there are also differences. The Thunder are a lot better equipped to handle a contract extension for Jackson now, than they were when it was time for Harden to be extended. By the time Jackson’s extension kicks in, Sefolosha, Perkins, and, (God forbid) Nick Collison’s contracts will all be expired. That’s almost $15 million in available salary to play with. The good thing is, Jackson won’t command a max or near max contract. When I think of Jackson, I don’t think of a top 5 player at his position. Two years ago, you could argue that Harden was the 3rd best shooting guard in the league, even if he was coming off the bench. You can’t say the same about Jackson at this point in his career. Also of note is that Harden was traded in the offseason, not in the middle of the season. The Thunder wouldn’t dare trade Jackson during the season when he is arguably their 4th best player. If anything, they’ll Harden-ize him during the offseason.

Which brings me back to Lamb. This is why it is completely asinine to think that the Thunder would want to trade Lamb. His most important asset to the Thunder at this moment is as an insurance policy. If the Thunder decide to either trade Sefolosha before the deadline or allow him to walk in the offseason, they can feel comfortable in the fact that they have a player in Lamb capable of starting for them either after the deadline or into next season. If the Thunder decide to trade Jackson in the offseason, they know that they have a player that can provide offense off the bench and can play with the starters during crunch time. In the grand scheme of things, Lamb may be the piece that makes other moves possible.