The Thunder has spent the last 10 days touring the West Coast in its second five-game road trip of the month. After losses to the Nuggets and the Clippers, the Thunder closed out its trip with a pair of wins over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday and the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.
In Wednesday’s game, the Thunder was without guard George Hill for the second consecutive game (right thumb sprain), but welcomed Al Horford back into the lineup who missed the previous six games to be with his family for the birth of his newest child.
Upon his return, Horford immediately made a splash going a perfect 5-for-5 from the 3-point line and cashing in a team-high-tying 21 points on the night. Defensively, the 14-year veteran went to work against Deandre Ayton, holding the third-year center to just five points on 2-of-7 from the field.
Also recording 21 points in Wednesday’s matchup was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who struck an effective balance late in the game of both finishing at the basket and finding his teammates for open looks to finish the night with a game-high eight assists. For the road trip, the third-year guard averaged a steady 22.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists while shooting 49.4 percent from the field.
All in all, the Thunder took pride in the many steps forward it made throughout its long trip. With the string of valuable experiences going up against the league’s best – Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul – Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault was pleased with his group’s ability to internalize the opportunities and grow from them.
“We had a five game trip and we try to evaluate these in totality and I thought this trip was good for us,” said Daigneault. “We had some ups, we had some downs. There’s things we can certainly improve, but we learned some lessons and I think we improved through the games and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do is just continue to make progress, put our best foot forward and then evaluate and prepare and do it all over again. I thought on this trip we walked that walk.”
The Thunder returns to Chesapeake Energy Arena to face the Brooklyn Nets for the second time this season. Last time out, OKC mounted a come-from-behind 129-116 win after trailing by as many as 15 points. Since that matchup in Barclays Center, the Nets added James Harden to its roster to play alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Behind the trio, Brooklyn leads the league in points per game with 119.8 per night and the league’s top field goal percentage of 49.0 percent.
Brooklyn’s most recent matchup resulted in a hard-fought overtime win against the Hawks on Wednesday. Harden, Durant and Irving combined for 89 of the team’s 132 points. On average the three combines for 69.8 percent of the team’s points.
Rounding out the Nets’ starting lineup is Deandre Jordon and 6-foot-6 sharpshooter Joe Harris whose 79-game streak with at least one made 3-pointer was broken on Wednesday as he went 0-for-3 from deep. Harris is tied for third in the league in 3-pointers made and sixth in 3-point shooting percentage at 47.3 percent.
The Nets run the fourth-most isolation plays per game and lead the league in points per isolation with 1.14. Between Harden, Irving and Durant, expect Brooklyn to search for 1-on-1 opportunities offensively throughout the game.
For the Thunder, this will require a locked-in defensive effort from all five players on the floor to provide help when needed and work to make the ball handler as uncomfortable as possible.
Stat to Watch
Fast-Break Points – During its run to close Phoenix’s 17-point lead on Wednesday, the Thunder played with pace and tempo after securing the defensive rebound and burst into transition to find ways to score before the Suns’ defense could get set. By the end of the night, OKC outscored Phoenix 18-8 in fast break points.
Look for a similar effort from the Thunder on Friday to push the pace and out-run Brooklyn’s defense down the floor. On the other side of the ball, the Nets are seventh in the league in fast-break points per game with 15.0 per night. As quickly as OKC works to get up the floor on offense, it will need to sprint back defensively to get matched and limit the Nets’ easy looks in transition.
Wednesday’s win marked the third time this season that the Thunder has overcome a deficit of 15 points or greater and walked away victorious. The Thunder trailed by as many as 17 against Phoenix, making it the second-largest comeback of the season behind the team’s 22-point comeback victory over Chicago on Jan. 15.
“This group is really relentless,” said Gilgeous-Alexander following Wednesday’s game. “We have a lot of guys that work hard and at the end of the day just want to win. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to figure out how to do so. I think we did tonight. We’re just gonna continue to get better continue to try to get wins and see where it takes us.”