Date: February 21, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 7 p.m. CTTelevision: Fox Sports OklahomaRadio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
The Thunder return to action after a brief All-Star hiatus where players and staffers alike rested and recalibrated before gearing back up for the second half of the season. However, for Thunder guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul, it was an action-packed few days as the pair represented the Thunder in Chicago during All-Star weekend.
Gilgeous-Alexander competed in his second Rising Stars game while also replacing Derrick Rose in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. Meanwhile, Paul made a memorable appearance in the 2020 All-Star Game, making a strong case for MVP while also dazzling viewers with a rare and unexpected alley-oop dunk. Nonetheless, it’s now back to business for the Thunder beginning with a challenging tilt against the second ranked team in the West.
“Long breaks in the NBA, you don’t get that many,” said Thunder guard Dennis Schröder. “Have a little bit of fun, get away but you still gotta be sharp when you get back and I think we did a great job of that.”
Denver’s offense gravitates around its All-Star center Nikola Jokic. The 7-footer leads his team in points, rebounds and assists as one of the best passers at his position. Surrounding him are various threats on the perimeter with Jamal Murray chief among them at point guard. The pick and roll chemistry between Jokic and Murray poses a significant challenge for defenders to contain as both Murray and Jokic have equal ability to score and facilitate. So far this season, Jokic has notched 107 assists to Murray which is the fifth most for a duo in the NBA.
The point/center duo is surrounded by guards on the perimeter such as Will Barton who are constantly in motion without the ball making themselves available when defenses focus their attention on Jokic or Murray.
“It’s gonna be tough, but it’s not just about [Jokic], their guards are phenomenal cutters,” noted Steven Adams. “They play super fast. The way they cut is just terrific.”
“Obviously a really good team, can play a lot of different ways,” said Donovan. “They’re a really deep team, they’ve got really good length. Obviously, Jokic is a very unique and really talented and gifted player. They’re just a good team all the way around.”
The battle in the paint will be one to keep an eye on as both the Thunder and the Nuggets tout a 7-footer anchoring their offenses in the paint. For the Thunder, Steven Adams notched an impressive stat line in his team’s previous matchup against Denver with 18 points, 14 rebounds with two blocks. As for Jokic, Adams will have his hands full with one of only three players in NBA history to average 10 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a season.
“He’s obviously a problem, he’s a really good player,” said Adams. “He makes really good plays. The right plays at the right time.”
Stat to Watch
Second chance points. The Nuggets lead the league in offensive rebound percentage and are fifth in second chance points per game. Rebounding and cleaning the boards will be critical for OKC to control Denver’s easy point opportunities. Look for Thunder guards to get into the rebounding mix and provide some help to its bigs who will have their hands full holding off Jokic and Paul Millsap who combine for 16 rebounds per contest.
The Thunder’s defense, which started off strong at the beginning of the season, has faltered slightly in its most recent games leading into the All-Star break. Although the slippage might not reveal itself on the stat sheet, Coach Donovan sees it as an area of improvement for his team to remain attentive to detail and maintain a level of consistency in terms of sticking to its defensive identity.
“The first thing is, we need to keep getting better defensively,” said Donovan. “I think against Cleveland we were really good, but Detroit, Boston, San Antonio, New Orleans I don’t think we’ve defended at a level we have for most of the year so consistency of that.”