OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (1-0) VS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (0-0)
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Last game: Timberwolves: None, Thunder: W, 97-89 over ORL
Oklahoma City began their season yesterday at home with a business-like win over the Magic, beating Dwight Howard and company in a battle of teams with confusing, singular sounding nicknames. Kevin Durant, unsurprisingly, showed no signs of lockout legs, dropping 30 points in the opener. James Harden also played well, earning 12 trips to the line on his way to 19 points. Westbrook shot 6-17 from the field and was as oxymoronical as usual, both effective and inefficient.
More importantly, OKC played an excellent defensive game, limiting the perimeter shooting Magic to just 28% from the three point line, and holding Dwight Howard to just 11 points.
1. How much did Minnesota learn in a short preseason?
This, of course, will be the wild card all season. But early tests against Milwaukee were quite encouraging. Rubio looked confident. Love looked incredibly fit. Williams looked athletic. Anthony Randolph looked bad (oops).
But that was the Bucks, and this is the Thunder. Oklahoma City is a bona fide favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Finals. More importantly, they have demonstrated the kind of model that a team like Minnesota can follow for success. They are a small market team made good by a combination of excellent moves and luck. This will be an interesting measuring stick for the Wolves.
2. How tired will Oklahoma City be?
I’ll be honest, I was really hoping Orlando would prove to be more of a test for the Thunder. But after some blazingly hot shooting early on, the Magic folded quickly. Don’t let the final score fool you, they didn’t prove to be enough of a challenge to truly wear down the Thunder. Flying several hours north might affect the Thunder negatively, and it’s possible the Timberwolves could be a sort of trap game for OKC, but Minnesota played the Thunder surprisingly well last season, and don’t expect a quality coach like Scott Brooks to let his team forget that.
3. Where will Kevin Love play most of his minutes?
It’s kind of impossible to guess where Kevin Love will be playing. Love played very well against the Thunder last year, but will Adelman have him running at the customary 4, or will he play (very) small ball and have Love play center? At the five, he would be matched up with Kendrick Perkins, another player who lost a considerable amount of weight in the offseason. But Perk, despite being in excellent shape, isn’t the type of player who can chase Love around the perimeter if he starts shooting threes.
A player who CAN chase sharp shooting big men around is Serge Ibaka, Love’s likely opponent if Adelman plays him mostly at the four. When these teams last met, the Thunder were nowhere near as complete as they are now, as they didn’t have Perkins and were forced to let an overmatched Jeff Green try to slow down Love for much of the game. Ibaka would likely perform better.
The Key Match-ups:
This is difficult because the Timberwolves’ starting lineups haven’t been announced yet and we haven’t seen, well, ANY real rotations yet. But I’ll give it my best shot.
One of the biggest concerns for Rubio is how he will handle the newest breed of NBA point guard, strong, aggressive, freakishly athletic players like Westbrook. So for his first matchup, Rubio gets…Westbrook. Woof.
The good news, of course, is that Minnesota doesn’t need Rubio to score a lot of points. They need him to distribute and handle the ball well. The bad news is that they also need Rubio to play effective defense. Minnesota can’t afford to let Westbrook to destroy them offensively all game, since Kevin Durant will probably be doing plenty of that himself.
Durant will be covered by Michael Beasley who got so utterly torched by Durant in Oklahoma City’s last visit to the Target Center, I expect the burn marks left scars. If Beasley isn’t covering Durant? It’s possible that rookie Derrick Williams will get thrown into the fire, but Williams lost his chance at starting at the 3 when he was unable to guard Beasley. And though Beasley has many admirable offensive traits, he is no Durant, and it’s hard to imagine Williams being able to do…well…anything against the two-time defending NBA scoring champs.
The Wolves are much improved and this will be a fun, interesting game. Expect the home crowd to be surprisingly loud and energetic thanks to the new faces, and expect the young players to be spurred on by this.