Thunder Heads to Denver for Mile High Matchup

Thunder Heads to Denver for Mile High Matchup | Oklahoma City Thunder

Thunder Status

The streak of Thunder mini-series matchups came to a close on Wednesday after a pair of back-to-back overtime games against the Lakers. In each game, the Thunder stepped up to the challenge against the reigning NBA champions and refused to make excuses despite the fact the group played with just eight active players in both matchups.

It was hustle, scrap and competitiveness that was on full display for OKC to force a total of 106 minutes of playing time between the two Lakers’ matchups. Kenrich Williams stepped up in multiple ways for the Thunder throughout the mini-series with career-high efforts. In game one, Williams wrangled a career-high six offensive rebounds to help generate critical second opportunities for his team. In game two, the third year forward stepped into his third start of the season filling in for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (left knee sprain) and contributed a career-high 24 points and became just the third undrafted player in OKC history to record 20-plus points in a game.

Offensive contributions came by committee for the undermanned Thunder and in doing so, the group racked up a season-high 32 assists on Wednesday without any true point guards on the floor. The offense flowed through its big men in Mike Muscala and Al Horford who found their teammates behind the arc for open looks or to play against a closeout.

The fluctuation in the Thunder’s lineup over the past four games gave the group a chance to test its mettle and its systems under pressure while allowing players like Darius Miller and Justin Jackson who have fallen in and out of the rotation this season, the opportunity for not just extended minutes but contribute offensively as well.

“When we go out there, we’re going to lay it all on the floor no matter what, no matter who we’re playing against or who’s on the floor,” said Diallo. “We’re just a group of guys that want to go out there and just play the game that we love to play and just leave it all out there.”

Opponent Breakdown

Friday’s matchup with mark the second matchup of the season between the Nuggets and the Thunder. The first took place mid-January in Denver as the Nuggets topped the Thunder 119-101. Nikola Jokic led the way with 27 points while adding in 12 rebounds and six assists, but it was Denver’s points off of second chance points and OKC’s turnovers that sealed the deal.

After a recent tough stretch dropping three straight games, the Nuggets took down the Cavs in a rout on Wednesday posting a season-high 133 points. Paul Millsap led the way for the Nuggets with 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field while Michael Porter Jr. chipped in 19 on 6-of-10.

The headliner for Denver’s offense, however, is Jokic who averages 26.9 points per contest and hovers around a triple-double with 11.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. The Thunder’s defense will need to be locked in to not just limit Jokic as a scorer, but as a facilitator as well.

Matchup Focus

Denver’s center in Nikola Jokic provides a matchup puzzle for nearly every opponent. Standing at 6-foot-11, the sixth-year center leads the Nuggets not just in points and rebounds, but in assists and steals as well. Over the past six contests, Jokic has averaged 32.0 points on 56.8 percent shooting from the field while grabbing 9.5 rebounds and dishing out 7.7 assists.

The Thunder’s offense is full of its share of versatile and mobile big men to match up with Jokic, but it will require a team effort to limit the looks he creates off the pass. His 6.8 assists per game are the most by a center in NBA history.

Stat to Watch

Second-Chance Points — In the Thunder’s first matchup against Denver, second chances played a pivotal role in Denver’s ability to take control of the game. The Nugget’s 18 offensive rebounds translated into thirty-two consequential second chance points. On the flip side, Denver also sits atop the league in the fewest opponent second chance points per game.

On Friday, look for OKC to send five to the glass defensively in order to limit Denver’s second chances at a basket.

Thunder Trend

Ball movement has long been a core and foundational principle for the Thunder over the course of this season, but over the past several games that aspect of OKC’s game has been on full display as the offense pours in from every single position. Over the last four games, the Thunder has dished out an average of 27.0 assists, including a season-high 32-assists effort on Wednesday.

In that game, the Thunder was without a true point guard on the floor meaning those dimes stemmed beyond the usual suspects like Théo Maledon or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Players like Al Horford, Mike Muscala, Hamidou Diallo and Justin Jackson all took turns facilitating offensively and helping the group generate the best possible look on the floor. Sharing the ball at such a high level is what Coach Daigneault refers to as true team basketball making the team very difficult to guard.

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