The Oklahoma City Thunder have had the most promising start to a franchise season in a decade, and there is growing optimism and anticipation surrounding the remainder of the season.
With October, November, and the In-Season Tournament in the books, the Thunder turn to a very tough string of games in December, at least on paper. Through the opening months, the Thunder have been able to explode out of the gates to win 12 of their first 18 games.
The MVP-level play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has spearheaded a deep Thunder squad that has surprised the league early in the campaign.
Now that the season has begun so well, the Thunder have built expectations for themselves. This year is not only about growth and development for one of the league's youngest teams but also about team success and potentially earning a post-season push.
Almost all of the Thunder's games in December come against other Western Conference teams, and there are no off-nights as the playoff field looks deeper and more competitive than ever. Beating another Western conference opponent could not only mean a win in the win column but also a crucial factor in deciding playoff seeding later in the season.
Here are three games that the Thunder should circle on the calendar in December as potential statement games to really show the league what they're about this season.
Wednesday, December 6th At Houston
Oklahoma City and Houston started their rebuild frames in a similar time period, and now both teams have blossomed into exciting yet productive teams this season.
The Rockets have been led by 2021 first-round pick Alperen Sengun, who is putting up near All-Star numbers whilst running center. The matchup of Sengun and rookie sensation Chet Holmgren would be an extremely intriguing watch.
Sengun prefers to operate in the low post, as his outside shot is the biggest glaring hole in his game. There have been moments this season where Holmgren has been out-muscled by bigger players and lured into fouls by clever movements, and Sengun is a master at both.
It will be interesting to see how a defensively dominant yet slim player like Holmgren deals with a skillful post scorer and back-to-the-basket operator like Sengun.
Taking care of the basketball will be crucial in this game, as both the Thunder and the Rockets rank inside the top 10 for the fewest turnovers committed per game this season.
The most electrifying part of this game will be the two young cores facing up in a season where both teams have bigger aspirations, goals, and expectations. The Thunder are going to want to walk into Houston, show the Rockets that they are the stronger group and the overall better team this season.
However, it will still be an extremely fun matchup for NBA fans, as both teams seem destined to start looking past their rebuilds and into a window of playoff success and contention.
Saturday, December 16th at Denver
The last time the OKC Thunder faced off against the reigning NBA champions, the game was seemingly over by halftime. This time, the Thunder will be looking to bounce back and display the maturity the team has developed since that October game.
Chet Holmgren will also have something to prove, as in that same game, he was absolutely dominated by Nikola Jokic. Jokic also said post-game that Holmgren "needs to be a little bit fatter."
After going toe-to-toe with the current NBA MVP Joel Embiid, in Saturday's loss to the Sixers, Holmgren has shown that he is still learning how to guard the best players at his position.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will also be in for a bounce-back game, and look for him to really mark this game to attempt to cement himself as a true MVP contender. Shai had a woeful night the last time these two teams met, shooting just two for 16 from the field.
Denver has had some regular season struggles recently, and the Thunder will look to rally defensively where they are currently ranked as the NBA's fifth-best defense, according to team defensive rating.
Knocking off the defending champs in their own building would really send a message to the league, a message that shows the Thunder are for real in 2023-24.
Friday, December 8th vs Golden State
A conference rival arrives into OKC on December 8th for what should be a blockbuster Western Conference clash.
The Warriors currently hold the NBA's 17th ranked defense, with Draymond Green being the anchor. When the Thunder visited the Warriors in November, Green was suspended for both contests, allowing more freedom for the Thunder's offense.
Oklahoma City also runs the fifth best offense in the association, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaging over 30 points per game. Alongside the scoring prowess of Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder have four players shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc on good volume this season.
This game will prove to have significance as the season rolls on, as the Thunder took two out of the first three matchups and now have a chance to clinch the season series and ultimately the tie-breaker over Golden State. This could be a crucial factor in playoff seeding and deciding final spots in the post-season.
The key to locking out Golden State is to run the shooters off the three-point line. Klay Thompson is shooting the second-lowest two-point field goal percentage of his career, at just 45 percent.
If Lu Dort, Jalen Williams, and Kenrich Williams are able to chase Thompson and Stephen Curry off screens and force them to put the ball on the floor, the Warriors' offense becomes scrambled with not as much flow and movement.
Another boost is the home crowd. Chet Holmgren's clutch game-tying three was in San Francisco, so the crowd went dead silent. This time, every time the Thunder make a big play, expect a huge reaction from Loud City as they attempt to rally the Thunder past a tough opponent.