Game Day Preview: OKC Thunder hope for Merry Christmas as they host Wolves

Russell Westbrook leads his OKC Thunder on a Christmas Night match versus the upstart Wolves. Tip off is 8PM ET

With only 10 teams making the coveted NBA Christmas Day schedule it’s never a certainty the OKC Thunder will make the list. That said, heading into the 2016-17 season most anticipated Russell Westbrook and his Thunder would make the cut.  While doubt existed regarding how the Thunder would fair minus 2 of their top 3 players, Westbrook is known worldwide and anticipation regarding how he would perform without his long-time star partners loomed.

Mr. Triple-Double:

Cut to present and Westbrook is delivering in more ways than one. First, he has his Thunder positioned to make the playoffs sitting in 6th with an 18-12 record. Second he’s delivered 14 triple-double performances (51 all-time) to this point in the season. His average of 31.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.8 assists has him on track to record the first triple-double average for a season since the Big O (Oscar Robinson) did it back in 1961-62.

Generally Christmas Day marks the point in the season where NBA fans interest begins to pique. This season has been the exception with Mr. Triple-Double making games must watch viewing. With 14 trip-dubs already he’s hitting the mark in 46.6% of  Thunder games. This is significant because there are several records Westbrook is chasing.

The obvious one is averaging the trip-dub over a season, the second is eclipsing the existing record of 41 triple-doubles in one season. Again, Oscar Robinson holds the record. At his current pace Westbrook is in target to get 38. Ahh, but there lies the rub. Pundits worry the wear and tear on Westbrook to carry the entire Thunder team will take a toll, resulting in late season fatigue. Yet, closer inspection of the chiseled Westbrook reveals his most developed and reliable muscle is his heart!

RELATED STORY: Opinions Vary, but who does Russell Westbrook think he is?

Suffice to say, Westbrook has dual motivation; first to inspire his young team to reach the post season. Second, Russ no doubt hopes for an opportunity to play the current top seeded Warriors. And, though the Thunder in fairness don’t have the fire power to measure up to the newly constructed star laden Death Unit, it sure is an enticing lure for viewers to also hope this date comes to pass.

The Organic Super Team:

Entering the season the Wolves were a team many pundits (including myself) were extremely high on. There was good reason for the optimism given new head coach Tom Thibodeau was at the helm. He of the 5 winning Chicago Bulls seasons and master of defensive strategies.

The difference being while Thibs had youngsters Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler in Chicago he also had several vets to help them along. Perhaps that is why the Wolves process is taking longer than anticipated. Clearly this Wolves team who has the past two seasons Rookies of the Year (Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns) along with 2-time defending dunk champ Zach LaVine are loaded for bear.

Minnesota’s issues are primarily on the defensive end of the court, ironic given Thibs is the guy teaching them.  But, though Minnesota rank 27th defensively there have been signs of improvement.  Rather, it’s the high powered 9th ranked Wolves offense which punctuates the true issues for the team. Regularly Wiggins and company build double digit leads, especially in the first half. The problem has been coughing those leads up once teams adjust at the half.   Isolating the Wolves by quarter specifically highlights their problem areas.

Fixing one leak only serves to reveal another:

I’ll equate the Wolves season to Hans Brinker who famously plugged the hole in the dike to save his beloved Netherlands. Just as Thibs and his young charges fix one gushing problem, another crevice begins to spout water. To wit,  at season start the Wolves regularly built first half  20-point leads only to surrender them in horrid third quarters.

Having fixed this issue (as the past 5 games showcases) now the issue is in final frame. The good news is Thib’s youngsters are beginning to show an uptick on the defensive end, the problem however is two-fold:

  • consistently maintaining that effort over 48 minutes
  • not regressing offensively while growing defensively
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Recently Minnesota are demonstrating growth. As per NBA.com the past 3 games reveals the starting lineup ranks high on all fronts.   I recognize this is an extremely small sample, but with a young squad even small successes can be encouraging and offer Thibs teachable lessons. The Wolves have had the third best offense through these games. More impressively, of those units they’ve been the best defensive and net squad with results which would find them ranking among the league’s top 10.
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Suffice to say this (like the Sixers Joel Embiid) is a “a process” and patience is key. For the Thunder, they’ll need to be aware that just because these Wolves haven’t put it all together for a full 48, it doesn’t mean they can’t. Minnesota are so deep with athleticism –  talent-wise their more than capable of beating the elite on any given day.

With that, here’s the game specifics:

Rotations:

Oklahoma City Thunder Starters:

Point Guard:  Russell Westbrook 
Shooting Guard:  *Anthony Morrow
Small ForwardAndre Roberson
Power Forward: Domantas Sabonis
CenterSteven Adams

Oklahoma City Thunder Bench:

Point Guard: Semaj Christon
Shooting Guard: Alex Abrines
Small Forward: Jerami Grant, Kyle Singler,
Power Forward: Nick Collison* Josh Huestis
Center: Enes KanterJoffrey Lauvergne

Notes:

  • *Morrow replaces the injured Oladipo in the line-up
  • Huestis is currently with Oklahoma CIty Blue – D-League Affiliate

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Image reference: NBA.
Full stats available via nba.com/thunder

Minnesota Wolves Starters:

PG: Ricky Rubio: 6.4 points, 6.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds
SG: Zach LaVine: 20.1 points, 2.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 37.5% from deep
SF: Andrew Wiggins: 22.2 points, 2.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 38.3% from deep
PF: Karl-Anthony Towns: 22.0 points, 2.4 assists, 10.3 rebounds, 37.8% from deep, 1.5 blocks
C:  Gorgui Dieng: 10.2 points, 2.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks

Minnesota Wolves Bench:

PG: Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones, John Lucas III
SG: Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush
SF: Nemanja Bjelica
PF: Adreian Payne, Jordan Hill
C:  Cole Aldrich,

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Image reference: NBA.
Full stats available via nba.com/wolves

Key Match-ups:

Ricky Rubio vs Russell Westbrook: Oft over looked for his defensive ability, Ricky Rubio is the lone vet starter on the Wolves squad. It’s likely LaVine or Wiggins will draw the defensive assignment (or both) of slowing Westbrook.

RELATED STORY: Analyzing why trading Westbrook may be best for Thunder’s future

Karl-Anthony Towns vs Steven Adams: KAT is drawn to the limelight so look for him to be aggressive on both ends and want to make a statement. Adams will have his hands full and his best bet may be trying to lure KAT into early foul trouble by taking advantage of his youthful exuberance.

Andrew Wiggins vs. Andre Roberson: For the Thunder to get an advantage, Roberson will need to bring some offense to the court today in order to keep Wiggins and/or LaVine occupied on both ends. Don’t be fooled by Wiggins laid back demeanor, he’s as driven to win as KAT and LaVine, he just doesn’t aspire to having anything to do with sound bites for the camera.

As Thibs said, “you don’t have to be the loudest guy in the room to be the strongest voice“. Case in point, one scribe made the fatal error back when Wiggins was in prep school saying he was never going to live up to all the hype. Wiggins went out and scored 57 points going 24-28 from the field, along with 13 rebounds and 4 blocks and he didn’t even play his regular normal allotment!

RELATED STORY: Roberson the Thunder Minute Man

Keys to Win:

The problem with analyzing how you beat the Wolves is the data clearly shows the OKC Thunder are the far superior team in virtually every category.  However, this young Wolves squad has 3 young players who are all stars in their own right. Sure Wiggins and Towns assets are obvious, but it’s the growth of LaVine this season which has been the most surprising.

Many of the Wolves wins have been manufactured via LaVine’s time with the bench unit on the floor, so the Thunder need to be especially aware of that unit.

Though the Wolves rank low in rebounding and defense OKC can’t expect them to roll over just because these are areas they have major benefits in.

An area the Thunder could pinpoint would be perimeter shooting, but it’s not like OKC have been lighting it up from deep.

Of the Christmas Day matches this one has the potential to be the most entertaining given the young talent on the floor. It’s also an agonizing one for me personally because Westbrook is my favorite player, followed very closely by Wiggins and Kyle Lowry. For this Canadian lady I’d love to see Wiggins step up in this bright spotlight and showcase the seemingly effortless way he performs the incredibly difficult.

Simultaneously, I’m hoping for a 15th triple-double by Westbrook.  Given Westbrook’s heart and ability to rise to big occasions, I’d say the latter is more likely. Regardless, sit back and enjoy this one, since it’s bound to offer plenty of oohs and ahhs and quite possibly be the match of the day.

Walking Wounded:

OKC Thunder:

Victor Oladipo – wrist, based on the last comments from Donovan (he can’t do anything with his hand yet) assume he’s out today.

The Oklahoman reports:

He’s (Oladipo) closer to playing every single day; I just don’t know where the endpoint is when he actually starts playing, if that makes any sense,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Because he is getting better. I don’t want to come across like he’s not. There is improvement there, but it’s not at a point where he can do enough in terms of catching, passing, shooting, playing right now.”

Cameron Payne – foot, Brett Dawson of the Oklahoman reports Payne did participate in Friday’s shoot around in non-contact activities.

To our best knowledge Cam is still on track to return shortly with the goal of December 29th versus the Grizzlies.

Wolves:

  • Nikola Pekovic – out for season

Game Specifics:

Recent History: OKC Thunder hold the all-time record versus Minnesota with a 78-29 record. Since moving to Oklahoma City the Thunder have owned the Wolves 26-6. In the past 11 games the Wolves record is 10-1 with the lone loss coming in Minnesota.
The Venue: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
The Tip: 8:00 PM EST (7:00 PM CT)
TV: FS Oklahoma HD, National: ESPN
Radio:WWLS 98.1FM OKC / 930AM (ESP)

 

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And, to everyone, the Thunderous Intentions Team wish you Happy Holidays and hope you enjoy the Christmas Day games.