Author Note: Charles Chaney of Thunder Obsessed and I decided to exchange game preview features for our respective sites. Thunder Obsessed is one of my favorite Thunder blogs, and have enjoyed contributing there from time-to-time. Below, Charles gives his thoughts on tonight’s Northwest Division matchup. Follow him on Twitter, @ThunderObsessed.
Since losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 20th, Oklahoma City Thunder have looked less like the Western Conference favorite, and more like a team with a lot of questions about heart and more importantly, defense. Oklahoma City comes into tonight’s game with a 6-2 since the match up in Minneapolis.
What has caused this team to drop three games in their last nine after winning 12 in a row? The league and a bit tougher schedule? Probably. However, getting started has been a real struggle getting started. The Thunder are now just 1-4 when they trail in the first quarter. However, to combat that stat, Oklahoma City is a solid, and league best 23-1 when they score over 100 points this season.
Unlike their previous match up with the Timberwolves, sixth man sharp shooter, Kevin Martin, will actually play. Oklahoma City was a pathetic 5-of-20 from deep against the T-Wolves last time, this time they have the league’s sixth (based on 100 or more shots) best three-point shooter back. Also, doesn’t hurt that Minnesota is missing Kevin Love.
Losing to the Washington Wizards on Monday night was basically a recipe of everything I’ve mentioned above, but with the Wizard’s added advantage of the one handed runner by Bradley Beal. Thunder players are pissed. Kevin Durant said it was on his shoulders and he’s tired of losses like this. Nick Collison said it was a habit they need to break. Good to know though, Oklahoma City is 6-1 coming off a loss. Winning margin? 14.3 points per game.
Which Thunder team will we all see tonight? We’ll see how much they actually care first, then we’ll know.
It’s a little negative on the thunder. but meh, it’s how I feel right now.
Note: Rick Adelman didn’t travel with the team to Oklahoma City after not coaching last night’s game, but may end up coaching tonight. If not, Terry Porter will handle the duties once again.
Alright, the injuries this season have officially gotten old. Still no Chase Budinger, and now no Kevin Love for a yet-unknown amount, meaning that if the Timberwolves are going to have to find a way to scrape together a couple wins. At least they’ll get Ricky Rubio back tonight. It still hurts being down a couple of your best players going against a good Hawks team, even though you’re at home. And although the Hawks will be without Anthony Morrow and Devin Harris, neither of those players are obviously on Love’s level, and they still have Al Horford and Josh Smith in the frontcourt.
With the Iso-Joe Johnson offense out of town, the Hawks are player at a quicker pace, but have also held on to their sixth overall ranking in opponents points per game from last season and their opp. eFG% and their Turnover percentages have held up, too. The difference, though, has been in that they don’t foul a lot, and are the best in the league at keeping their opponents off of the line. Of course, drawing fouls is something the Timberwolves have done well, but will be without one of their biggest reasons for that (Love).
The challenge will be to get good high percentage points in another way.
With five games in seven nights, it could be very important to get some momentum going in the right direction, but the Wolves will have to work to get that going tonight. But, hey, they have an army; we have a unicorn.
Tonight’s game is just one of several games in this recent stretch against Northwest Division rivals. Of course, I’m talking about Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Since the Blazers are in town, I thought I’d enlist the help of fellow Hardwood Paroxizen and contributor to ESPN TrueHoop Network’s Portland Roundball Society, Sean Highkin. I asked Sean a few questions about the matchup below. Be sure to follow him on Twitter, too: @shighkinNBA.
Derek James: In Minnesota we have Ricky Rubio, so we’ve grown accustomed to good point guard play. However, some fans may be getting their first taste of the Blazers’ Damian Lillard. Now, I know what makes his special since I seek out Blazers games, but what makes him a must-see on any given night?
Sean Highkin: Lillard’s confidence as a rookie running an offense has impressed me more than anything else. He’s had some rough games, as you’d expect any rookie to, and his efficiency has dropped a bit as teams have scouted him. He still turns the ball over more than I’d like to see. But he’s a rookie. All of that stuff is expected. I have yet to see him have a total meltdown, even when he’s overmatched by a Chris Paul- or Tony Parker-caliber point guard. Once the consistency gets there, that poise is going to make his transition to an elite point guard go pretty quickly.
DJ: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts for the Trail Blazers, but here they are at 17-15. How much of this is because of improved point guard play and how much is it due to other factors?
SH: I’ve said since the beginning of the season that the Blazers have an eighth-seed starting five and a 2012 Charlotte Bobcats bench, which is still basically true. Between how far ahead of expectations Lillard has been; how much better Nicolas Batum fits in Terry Stotts’ offense than he did in Nate McMillan’s; the night-to-night reliability of Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge; and J.J. Hickson’s wildly successful reinvention as a rebounds-and-hustle-points guy (seriously, think about how great he’d be as a third big on a team like the Clippers or Celtics), it’s not that surprising that they’ve been able overachieve to a degree early on. Before the season, I predicted they’d win 27 games, and barring an injury to one of those five players, it’s pretty likely that they’ll finish well above that.
With that said, I am not buying them as any kind of sleeper to sneak into the playoffs. The schedule is going to hit them hard this month (Miami, Golden State, Oklahoma City, a much-improved Nuggets squad, and a home-and-road back-to-back with the Clippers are on tap for January). The heavy minutes for the starters are going to catch up to them, and they just don’t have the depth to keep this up over an 82-game season. Paint defense is still a major issue that I don’t see resolving itself anytime soon. But they’ve been a lot better than many people, myself included, thought they’d be.
DJ: Early in the season, a big knock on Portland was their bench’s scoring, or lack there of. Has this improved, and are you enjoying your Sasha Pavlovic experience?
SH: Depth is definitely still an issue. We as a society are mostly past Sasha Pavlovic playing meaningful minutes, which is a fantastic development. But when your backup point guard is Ronnie Price, you’re playing four rookies not named Lillard in your rotation, and your most consistent scorer off the bench is Luke Babbitt, there are problems. It’s a very top-heavy roster, and the west is too deep for a team like that to really be competitive.
DJ: The Timberwolves have been decimated by injury so far, but what still concerns you about this matchup?
SH: Nikola Pekovic terrifies me. Of course, he would terrify any sane human. But for as good as Hickson has been this season at the two things he does well, he’s still one of the worst defenders in the league. He got pretty exposed by Pek the last time these two teams played, and I see no reason why it’ll go any differently this time. The Wolves also had a day off, while the Blazers just slogged out a win against Memphis and will be on the second half of a road back-to-back. So there’s that.
DJ: Conversely, where do you think the Blazers can give the Wolves fits?
SH: There are a couple things that I think could work in the Blazers’ favor. The Kevin Love/LaMarcus Aldridge matchup is always a fun one to watch, and lately it’s been Love that’s had the better end of it. But Aldridge has been outstanding lately, and Love has been banged up. The Wolves are also in the midst of one of the worst three-point shooting seasons in NBA history, and the Blazers have a few perimeter scorers in Batum, Matthews, and Babbitt.
Projected Starting Fives:
Damian Lillard — PG — Luke Ridnour
Wes Matthews — SG — Alexey Shved
Nicolas Batum — SF — Andrei Kirilenko
LaMarcus Aldridge — PF — Kevin Love (Questionable; sprained finger)
Alright, last night didn’t go the way anyone wanted it to. That’s not how you want to follow up a win at home, and certainly not how you want to begin a road trip against division rivals. The Timberwolves will have a quick turnaround against the Nuggets tonight in Denver, where the three ball hasn’t exactly been dropping for them, either.
They haven’t been quite as dreadful as the Wolves, but they do hold the record for most attempts from three without a single make. However, unlike the Wolves, once they step inside the arc they are quite good, 5th in the league in team field goal percentage.
The Nuggets have relatively quietly had a very good month in December, having not lost back-to-back games since Thanksgiving. Don’t look now, but they’re suddenly first in rebounding, second in assists, and JaVale McGee is raining threes on Colorado. Ok, maybe “raining” isn’t the right word.
There will be some opportunities to take advantage of the Nuggets since they can be turnover prone, don’t get to the line a lot, and struggle from the outside. Of course, if you try to make them miss, you will have to out-rebound the leagues top rebounding team, which is fun. On the other side of that, if the Wolves struggle to shoot, themselves, and can’t beat the Nuggets on the glass they could be in for a long night.
This is kind of short, but it’s 2am, and all I can really say after Wednesday’s game is don’t do that again…whatever that was, exactly.
Where: EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah
When: 8:00 PM
See It: Fox Sports North
Hear It: WCCO AM 830
Written by Tom Westerholm. Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.
After games against Houston, New York, OKC and Miami, Minnesota would be excused for thinking the last five games have been difficult, but we can also excuse Utah for not shedding a tear. The Jazz are 1-4 in their last five games because Utah’s last five games have been BRUTAL. Two games against the Clippers, one game against Miami and one against Golden State have pushed the Jazz back to 15-17 overall and 3-7 in their last ten.
But the fact remains that the Jazz are 1-4 in their last five games and for Minnesota, once again competing with Utah for a low playoff seed in the Western Conference, every MIA/LAC/GSW loss for another contender is a good loss.
Tonight, two teams who really could use a win will tangle in EnergySolutions Arena in a homecoming of sorts for Andrei Kirilenko. The Jazz, as you may recall, feature a brutal murderer’s row of big men including Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and a familiar face in Al Jefferson. The three big men have a combined PER of 58.1 (19.7, 18.0 and 20.7 respectively) and collectively grab 49% of all available rebounds.
Here’s something strange: Minnesota is 29th in the NBA in total defensive rebounds. But the Wolves defensive rebounding PERCENTAGE is number one in the entire league at 76.1%. What does this tell us? There are any of a number of possibilities. First: Opponents hit a high percentage of shots, leading to fewer defensive rebounds. But that’s not the case. Minnesota’s opponents are shooting .444 overall, 14th in the NBA. That’s not ideal, but it’s also not extremely bad. Second: The Wolves play slowly and don’t end up with a lot of opponent possessions. This also isn’t the case: Minesota is 9th in pace in the NBA.
Either way, the Jazz are a very good rebounding team. They are 7th overall, but more importantly 4th in offensive rebounding. The frontcourt battle will probably play a big role in tonight’s game.
On the negative side, there could be a TON of missed jumpers tonight. Per @Clintonite33, an ESPN TrueHoop writer on Twitter and a very smart fan of the Jazz, Utah is the worst team in the NBA defending spot-up attempts. But as we are all aware, Minnesota is the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA. So rather than being caught between a rock and a hard place, it will probably be more like being stuck between a pillow and a foam pit. But you get the idea.
After a nice win against the Suns, the Timberwolves could use a bit of momentum. Ricky Rubio’s absence (out for the next two games with back spasms) won’t help, but if the Timberwolves can take advantage of Utah’s mediocre spot-up defense, they may not need him to get an important win over a division rival.
I know what you want to talk about with the Suns. And I’m going to give it to you, but you’re just going to have to wait for it. It’s not like I can talk a ton about a team that is 11-19, and one game ahead of the Kings in their division, anyway. Tonight is really a matchup of two teams looking to get back on the right track, since the Suns are on a four game losing streak and the Wolves have lost two in a row in unspectacular fashion, looking for redemption at home.
You should probably know about Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat, who provide for some fun pick ‘n’ rolls, and are probably the Suns’ two best players. Well, that’s if Dragic plays, who missed Friday’s game against Indiana with a bruised hip and wrist. Pekovic is also questionable, which would leave much of the paint for Gortat.
We’ll also be keeping an eye on Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Andrei Kirilenko to get going tonight after a few off games.
Now, the main event– the return of the former Timberwolves Wes Johnson, Mike Beasley, and Sebastian Telfair. Since signing with Phoenix, Beasley has lost his starting job posting a statline of 10-3-2, and struggling with his efficiency. While he’s struggled, he’s shown maturity in handling the benching, and looks like he’s trying.
Then there’s Wes, who’s averaging just 5.9 minutes per game on an obvious lottery team, and appears to be struggling with all things basketball in the desert as he was here in the north.
Finally, there’s Sebastian Telfair. Or Bassy. Or Telly. Same thing, anyway. After the way he drug himself around on one foot for that horrible fifteen win ’11 Timberwolves team with Plantar’s Fasciitis because he was in a contract year, and was still their best point guard, I’m glad to see him in another job. He’s no longer stuck on the depth chart behind the Jonny Flynns of the NBA, and is getting some decent burn, 19 mpg. Yeah, his shot isn’t there from the floor, but he’s been an average three point shooter thus far.
Anyway, be nice. No booing, and have a good time, y’all.
Projected Starting Fives:
Sebastian Telfair/Goran Dragic — PG — Luke Ridnour
Tonight features a key matchup between Kevin Love and James Harden. No, not as far as their skill sets, but their beards! Whether you side with Harden’s hobo deluxe or Love’s spirit of the the lumberjack, there’s a little bit of something for everyone tonight. Beards are a thing that should be revered, and not feared. Facial hair is such a pivotal part of tonight’s game that Love had this to say about the beard matchup with Harden:
”Mine’s still in the works. I’ll keep it going, shape it up a bit. Keep it healthy.”
Personally, I’m a fan of facial hair. Mostly because it makes me look fifteen if I go clean shaven. My first foray into facial hair came at the suggestion of an Ex (If you know me, 80% of my stories begin with, “I had an Ex…”) to grow it out. So, I started with a simple jawline beard, because if I let it grow on my neck it becomes a patchy disaster, highlighted by the dead spot underneath my chin where I have zero hair follicles. Then in October, I decided to change my look into a goatee with sideburns after ten months of having the same look.
So, much like Love’s girlfriend last season, who also encouraged him to grow it, I started grow out mine at the suggestion of a female friend as well. However, I’ve learned that the female camp is a little split on the beard or no beard issue, but I’ve held on to mine since it’s annoying as a twenty four old to be asked what high school you go to. I’m not a stubborn or uncompromising person by any means, but I know I’m better off with than without it. Besides, once you do shave it off after a while you look in the mirror, horrified, asking yourself, “WHAT HAVE I DONE TO MY BEAUTIFUL FACE?!”
And that leads us to tonight where, despite what my opening paragraphs would have you believe, there will be basketball played. You’re in luck, too, because I’ve watched a decent amount of Rockets basketball on League Pass this season, and since this is a basketball blog, I’ll share with you some things that I’ve learned.
Jim Croce May Not Have Messed Around With Jim, But You Shouldn’t Mess with Omer Asik.
Yes, much like Croce’s song, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, you sure as heck don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you damn sure don’t mess with Asik. Don’t be deceived by Asik’s 102 Defensive Rating since he spends so much time playing next to guys like James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and other underwhelming defensive players. So far this season, Asik already has 1.1 Defensive Win Shares, despite his teammates.
In addition to his defense, he is fourth in the NBA in Total Rebounding Percentage and among the leaders in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. All of this makes the matchup with Nikola Pekovic very important, since he’s had some big games leading in Love’s absence. It sure won’t be easy.
Asik isn’t an elite offensive player by any stretch of the imagination, he’s still an average finisher at the rim for a big man and won’t every win a beauty contest for his shooting. But he can still convert enough to justify him being on the floor. Which is good for the Rockets since they like to run him in the pick ‘n’ roll with Lin and Harden, and defenses early in the season didn’t bat an eye with Asik as the roll man since he was not much of a threat to finish on offense whatsoever. Now, defenses just can’t trap the guard off of the screen every single time.
Harden and Lin Get Them Points, But They Give A Lot Back.
Top 5 Rockets Lineups with Lin-Harden and Points Per Possession Scored: 1.02; 1.03; 1.08 1.14; 1.08
Now check out the PPP allowed with those same five linueups: 1.07; 0.97; 0.98; 0.98; 1.05
You may think the three middle lineups aren’t that bad, and they aren’t terrible, but 1) They don’t play together nearly as often as the first (The first lineup has 320 minutes together and the second has just 90.); 2) The next two lineups have a PPP allowed of 1.05 and 1.06. Yeah, the Rockets have defensive issues, but they’ve managed to offset that by scoring more– a result of time playing together.
Rockets Month-by-Month Points Per Game vs Points Allowed Per Game:
October: 105.0-96.0 (1 game)
November: 101.9 — 101.9 (14 games)
December: 110.8 — 105.2 (12 games)
Yeesh, right? Part of this is prominently featuring young players like Lin, Harden, Chandler Parsons, and Marcus Morris. Harden for instance can be easily disoriented by a defense that sets good screens, freeing up his man for easy looks (Hey, Alexey Shved…). The Rockets also consider Toney Douglas an NBA player, so that’s another issue entirely.
Offensively, when this team is firing, they can be very good, and the Wolves will need to continue their good defensive play against the Rockets tonight.
Wait– Who Is In the Game for Houston?
The Houston bench has turned into a decent one. They have Greg Smith who is shooting 64.5% over the course of 22 games, and Marcus Morris who is very effective in the flow of the offense. Together, they give Houston some depth, and are able to stretch the floor as well. Can’t forget about guys like Carlos Delfino and Daequan Cook, who aren’t having great seasons, but have been the typical kind of player to bomb the Timberwolves from deep in seasons past.
There will be beards. There will be basketball. There may be beer (Not for me since I’ll be at work, though). And there may be– well, never mind.
Here’s something that kind of crept up on me: the Timberwolves are 7-3 over their last ten games. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that way, yet it is, and it’s awesome. Probably feels different because of the Florida road trip last week. Still, the Wolves have won seventy percent of their last ten games, which is great. Yes, some opponents have been better than others, but you still have to go out there and beat inferior teams.
However, these Knicks are a team to be reckoned with, currently in second place in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Love will be out tonight after getting his eye raked by Russell Westbrook on Thursday (If you saw it, it was a hard hit, and apparently his eye looked terrible after the game.), but the Knicks are missing Amare Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace, and Marcus Camby in the frontcourt, so they’ll be thinner than usual, too.
This of course means probably means Andrei Kirilenko seeing lots of Carmelo Anthony. Historically, this matchup has favored Melo, but Kirilenko provides the Timberwolves their best shot at slowing Melo down.
As a whole, this Knicks team will really test the Timberwolves’ perimeter defense, as they rank first and first in both three pointers attempted and made. Seriously. Melo, Ray Felton, Jason Kidd, and Steve Novak take between 4-5.7 attempts per game EACH. Yet, they don’t defend the three the greatest — they rank in the bottom of the league in opponent eFG%, due in part to the fact opponents make such a high percentage against them — but the Wolves don’t shoot the three well on most occasions, either.
Despite the Knicks not being a particularly strong rebounding team, the Timberwolves will have to try to force them to make mistakes that they don’t typically make since they will be without Love. It’s safe to say that if the Knicks are protecting the ball like they have all year, and no one steps up on the glass, it could be a long night if the Knicks try to turn this thing into a three point shoot out.
After tonight the Timberwolves will have played three of the league’s top four offensive teams consecutively, but the schedule softens up considerably going into next week.
When it comes down to it, a game preview is supposed to familiarize you with your team’s opponent and tells you the important thing for the game. For tonight’s Timberwolves and Thunder matchup, here’s what you need to know: the Thunder are really, really good. What? Is that not good enough for you? Ok, I’ll expand a little, but I’m telling you I already summarized the entire piece by the end of the second sentence.
It’s not that the Timberwolves aren’t good, despite dropping two straight to the Magic and Heat. If a schedule maker (with a sick and twisted sense of humor) is going to have you play the Western Conference champion one game after playing the reigning Eastern Conference champion, you should at least get one game at home, and that’s the case here.
The Thunder are good at a lot of things. Almost all of the things, actually.
- They have the number one offense in the NBA, and are the second best shooting team in the league, too. Of course this means that the Wolves draw the two best shooting teams in back-to-back games, too, because life is terribly unfair. If you’ve watched their offense from prior seasons to this one you can see the difference on the court.
If that weren’t enough, led by Russell Westbrook they’re 13th in assists, and 1st in field goal to free throw attempt ratio as a team. Oh good, they move the ball to get good looks, then actually make those shots, and get to the free throw line. I don’t have to tell you’re they’re the best free throw shooting team in the league, do I?
- They’re suddenly a top ten defensive team, because, again, life is terribly unfair. Once an average defensive team, the Thunder are suddenly the tenth ranked defensive squad in the NBA, but they don’t force a ton of turnovers, which is about all they’re not great at. Highlighting their defensive playmaking abilities, they’re number one in blocked shots, because life…not…fair.
The Thunder don’t give opponents that many attempts, either, ranking 17th and 19th in FGA and 3PAT. And when you’re a team like the Timberwolves that tend to struggle with shooting, you need all of the opportunities they can get.
- Ok, the Thunder may be an average rebounding team, and 26th in offensive rebounding, but offensive rebounding doesn’t matter as much when you shoot the ball as well as they do. Maybe if they got a little more practice at offensive rebounding they’d be better at it. Screw it. They’re a failure because they’re not already elite in this area. Fine, that’s not true; I’m just upset because this really isn’t fair.
- Then there’s Kevin Durant, who has been even more phenomenal than ever. Here’s a list of players who have ever achieved a 50/40/90 shooting season while averaging at least 27-8-4. I always thought Larry Bird looked lonely on that list…
On top of all of that, they’re also riding a 12-game winning streak into Target Center. However, there is such a thing as too much momentum and maybe the fact they’re on the road on a second game of a back-to-back is all the more fair life is going to get for us tonight. Optimistically, the Timberwolves are billing this as a rematch of the thrilling double OT loss last season in which Kevin Durant and Kevin Love exchanged back breakers, but this isn’t the same since both teams are much improved.
See, folks. The premise of previews is pretty basic. I told you, this team is good.
Alright, so things didn’t go as planned last night in Orlando. Things started out promising, but slowly came undone, and the Wolves watched their four game winning streak disappear at the hands of…Glen Davis? Er, at the hands of Glen Davis. Whoops, wrong punctuation. However, the Wolves look to get back on track against the Miami Heat! Dang it, there goes my punctuation again.
Where we stand now, the defending champs are second in the East and have won three of their last four, with their lone defeat being a two point loss to the Warriors. And as I mentioned above, the Timberwolves four out of five, yada, yada, yada…
The LeBron Heat have been trouble for the Wolves, up until the formation of the Love-Rubio tandem. In their lone meeting at the Target Center last season, the Timberwolves lost a nail-biter in regulation, 103-101. If the Wolves are able to win the key statistical battles they did last night, and hit a few more shots, they could prevail here.
The Heat’s defense may not be near where it was last and they’ve struggled on the glass, too, but that doesn’t matter when they shoot the ball as well as they do. Obviously, LeBron is athletic Freakzilla and has a grab bag of skills from many of the various greats in NBA history, but it’s really un-freaking-fair when he’s able to shoot .541 from the floor and .424 from deep, too. In short, he’ll beat you inside and he’ll beat you outside, which is something that he hasn’t been able to do in the past, and certainly not to this extent.
It’s not just LeBron, though. Check this out:
- Ray Allen: .494/.474
- James Jones: .455/.455
- Rashard Lewis: .486/.474
- Shane Battier: .433/.443
- Mike Miller: .426/.391
This list doesn’t even include Dwyane Wade’s .508% from the floor, either. Look at this; their “worst” shooting shooter is shooting just under .400! Guess how many .400% three point shooters the Timberwolves currently have? Zero. Their best shooter from deep has been Luke Ridnour with a .365% mark. When you look at it, it’s an incredible contrast.
Some of this may be attributable to LeBron’s 32.9% assist percentage, which combined with his other numbers/abilities more than justifies a 29.8% Usage Rate, but also the fact that Wade and Chalmers each have an assist percentage in the twenties, too. When you combine good ball movement, with good shooters, the Heat have just so many shooters you have to respect. When you combine all of this, it has increased the Heat’s offensive efficiency from a year ago, and off-set some of their defensive shortcomings thus far.
Fortunately for the Timberwolves, they are the NBA’s sixth-best defensive bunch. However, the Heat are the second-best team in the league protecting the ball, so they’ll have to look to exploit them on the boards to control the game and get second chance points.