10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Warriors -10, Over/Under: 230
With football finally in the rearview mirror, basketball takes full control as the NBA charges into it’s most chaotic point of the season on the eve of the Trade Deadline, shortly followed by the All-Star Break. This is the point of the term in which teams start to show some serious signs of fatigue, having only been further exaggerated by injuries, which is precisely where we find the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors, who will meet for the second time this year, from ORACLE Arena, in Oakland, California. It seems as if the Break can’t come quick enough for the Thunder (30-24, 5th in Western Conference), who after winning twenty-two out of thirty games at one point, have suddenly found themselves mired in a miserable 4-Game Losing Streak. This campaign has essentially been a grand experiment for Billy Donovan and his charges, who have spent the majority of the schedule up to this point searching for a way to properly balance the gamebreaking theatrics of reigning MVP Russell Westbrook (25.4 PTS, 44.4% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 10.3 AST, 2.0 STL, 25.1 PER), with the presence of fellow All-Stars Paul George (21.7 PTS, 44.5% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 3.0 AST, 2.2 STL, 19.1 PER) and Carmelo Anthony (17.3 PTS, 41.4% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.4 AST, 13.9 PER), whom the Front Office moved mountains to acquire via Trade during the Offseason. After a particularly rocky start to the season (just 8-12 through November), Oklahoma City began to show some serious signs of a team that could compete in the powerful Western Conference, and perhaps even challenge their opponent tonight for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In fact, when these teams met back on November 22nd at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Westbrook and Co. battered the reigning Champions in a 108-91 rout, which was coincidentally at a time when they were still piecing together their new identity. That identity has arrived in the form of an aggressive defensive team, that would overplay on the perimeter and jump as many passing lanes as possible in an attempt to get on the counterattack and score easy points in transition. And that’s exactly what they managed to do to the Warriors; the hosts harassed the Champs into Twenty-Two Turnovers, which led to a decisive Thirty-Four Points, all the while owning a commanding advantage in Fast Break Points, 33-10. The triumvirate of Westbrook, George, and Anthony accounted for Seventy-Six Points on 46.0% shooting from the field, with Westbrook nearly amassing yet another Triple-Double with Thirty-Four Points on 13-of-27 shooting (48.1%), along with Ten Rebounds, Nine Assists, and Four Steals. Their swarming effort on the defensive end of the court has been Donovan’s answer for their perceivably ego-driven, isolation-heavy offensive attack; the Thunder make up for generally poor ball-movement (21.2 Assists per Game, 22nd Overall) by forcing a turnover on a league-best 15.0% of their opponents’ possessions, and pacing the NBA in Steals with 9.3 thefts a night. Furthermore, this a team that is very high on energy and effort, particularly around the rim (with Steven Adams serving as an enforcer straight out of the 90’s), where they’ve worked tirelessly on the Offensive Glass, securing 12.6 Offensive Rebounds (1st Overall), while blocking 5.1 shots per contest (7th Overall). With a collection of scoring machines among their ranks, few expected these guys to emulate the selfless style of the Warriors, Spurs, or Rockets, but they’ve managed to find a way to compensate for it by creating a wealth of second-chance opportunities, whether off the boards or via takeaways. However, there is a reason for their current slide, and his name is Andre Roberson (5.0 PTS, 53.7%, 4.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 11.0 PER), who despite being a relatively non-descript member of the Supporting Cast, has proven in his absence to be one of those indispensable Role Players that so many championship contenders have. The 26-Year Old Wing witnessed his season end as he ruptured his Patella Tendon in a 121-108 drubbing of the Detroit Pistons back on January 27th, and since that point, Oklahoma City has gone just 1-4. While many will remember him for air-balling Free-Throws in last year’s First Round Series with the Rockets, Roberson is arguably the team’s top Defender on the Perimeter, utilizing his long 6’7″ frame to deflect errant passes which start so many of those aforementioned Fast Breaks, culminating in Westbrook’s litany of nightly Sportscenter Highlights. Just look at how their play on Defense has fallen off without him; in the month of February thus far Oklahoma City has allowed opponents to shoot 50.5% from the field, including 44.6% from beyond the arc, while permitting a dismal 28.3 Assists, and collecting 8.0 Steals, all of which compare very unfavorably with their collective performance over the previous four months of action. Case in point, in their recent 108-104 defeat at home to the upstart Los Angeles Lakers (a team still very much in the midst of cultivating their own identity), they relinquished 48.8% shooting from the floor, including 13-of-30 from downtown (43.3%), and Twenty-Four Assists, while forcing Sixteen Turnovers in an affair that they trailed virtually throughout. We’d be remiss if we failed to single out Roberson’s absence as a prime culprit in their struggles, with a huge challenge coming tonight in the form of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both of whom the injured Defender would be charged with shadowing.
Meanwhile, the term crisis is certainly a subjective one when regarding the Warriors (41-12, 1st in Western Conference), who for the first time since the beginning of the season have dropped two out of three games. However, don’t expect anyone from the Bay Area to panic at this development, for at this point we’ve hardly seen anything from Steve Kerr’s charges to believe that they won’t be heading into the Playoffs as anything short of the odds-on favorites to win their third NBA Championship in four years. Just how seriously these guys take the Regular Season has been a debate for quite a while now, particularly when you consider that they’ve already lost twelve games thus far, quite the drop-off for a group that isn’t far removed from finishing with an NBA Record 73-9 campaign. Surely, we jest at any perceived drop-off when it comes to Golden State, who with a little over a week away from the All-Star Break sport the visage of a team simply coasting into the week-long hiatus. With that said, there is something to be said about them possibly being bored or complacent of late, when you consider the manner in which they’ve performed of late, with a shocking 129-99 blowout loss at the Utah Jazz, and most recently a 115-108 defeat at the Denver Nuggets, a pair of teams that are fighting for the Eighth and final Seed in the Western Conference. Compounding matters is the fact that the reigning Champs could very well be matchup with either team in the First Round of the Playoffs, leaving something to be said about planting any seeds of hope in the minds of their opponent that could be exploited later on down the line. In the case of their trip to Salt Lake City, the visiting side were absolutely horrendous on the defensive end of the floor, permitting the Jazz to shoot a scorching 58.2% from the field, including 14-of-28 from downtown, besting the Dubs in a department that they usually own, 42-15. Furthermore, Utah dished out a stellar Twenty-Five Assists in comparison to committing a miniscule Eleven Turnovers, proof of their opponent’s lack of effort and energy on Defense. On the flipside, former MVPs Kevin Durant (25.9 PTS, 51.5%, FG, 41.6%, 3FG, 6.8 REB, 5.6 AST, 25.3 PER) and Steph Curry (27.5 PTS, 49.3% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 28.3 PER) struggled mightily against the Jazz’s Defense, accounting for just Thirty-One Points on a dismal 9-of-26 shooting from the field (34.6%), including a nightmarish 1-of-12 from three (0.08%). Five days later at the Pepsi Center the details changed, but the story had the same conclusion. On the second night of a back-to-back, Kerr’s troops appeared to visibly run out of gas in the Fourth Quarter, with Denver’s notoriously high altitude likely playing a factor in their struggles. Despite jumping out to an early 32-29 lead, and leading 83-77 after Three Quarters, the visitors were outscored 38-25 in the final stanza, as the home side climbed back into the contest via the Offensive Glass (16-11, Plus-5), the Charity Stripe (25-of-29, Plus-11 ), and the Money Ball (12-of-29 3FG, Plus-12). It was yet another perplexing performance for the typically sharpshooting Warriors, who managed to knock down a scant 8-of-31 attempts from three (25.8%), with the aforementioned dup of Durant and Thompson (20.3 PTS, 49.2% FG, 45.2% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.6 AST, 16.8 PER) going a combined 2-of-9 (22.2%). It’s a curious development for a team that has been arguably the league’s best in this department over the last five seasons, shooting a blistering 39.2% from distance thus far (1st Overall), with roughly 30.4% of their offensive production coming from beyond the arc. Furthermore, the triumvirate of Durant, Curry, and Thompson have long-proven to be some of the most lethal of snipers in today’s game, with each shooting over 40.0% from long-range. When you look at the problems that they had with the Jazz and Nuggets, tonight’s meeting with the Thunder could be problematic for them, particularly given the energy and physicality they play with on both ends of the court. As mentioned earlier, they were manhandled in their previous meeting with Westbrook and Co., which was a far departure to how the routinely handled Oklahoma City last season; in four meetings during the 2016-2017 campaign, the Warriors took all four matchups by an average margin of 9.7 Points per Game, shooting 51.7% from the field, including 45.1% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 29.5 Assists, and outrebounding them by 4.5 boards. And in case you wondering, Durant made it a point of emphasis to punish his former teammates, exploding for 37.7 Points on a ridiculous 65.6% shooting from the field, including an insane 15-of-24 from three (62.5%).