The individual records have been reached. The team’s seeding is locked in. The Oklahoma City Thunder know who they will be facing in the first round of the playoffs. So what is there left to play for? Honestly, nothing. I mean, you could always look at the uncertainty of Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign and reason that Westbrook and the rest of the team should be playing to increase his odds of winning the MVP. Because, you know, 48 wins is better than 46 wins. And in our round number obsessed culture, the number 8 has twice as much roundness as the number 6.
With several Thunder players suffering from “end of season-itis”, the focus should be on getting everyone as healthy as possible for the playoffs. In the last two games, Andre Roberson and Doug McDermott have each missed time due to sore knees. Alex Abrines has missed the first 3 games of the current road trip due to a sprained left knee suffered a week ago. And you know both Westbrook and Steven Adams are probably due for a rest day in the next two games.
But here’s the reality of the rest/health situation: Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has done a masterful job of managing Westbrook’s minutes. Of the four MVP candidates, only Kawhi Leonard has played less total minutes and less minutes per game, because, of course, San Antonio. But James Harden has had to play almost 2 more minutes per game than Westbrook and has accumulated about 130 more minutes of game action, while playing in one less game. LeBron James leads the league in minutes per game average at 37.8, exactly 3 minutes more per game than Westbrook.
See, that’s the difference between a one year plan and a five year plan. The Thunder have always been a five year plan organization, making moves with the future in mind. While the Thunder could have garnered 3-5 more wins this season if they would’ve played their veteran players more minutes, they instead decided to use most of that time on player development. Let’s see how Domantas Sabonis does as a starter. Let’s put Jerami Grant and Abrines in certain high-pressure situations and see how they perform. Let’s stick with Semaj Christon, instead of putting Westbrook back in the game every time the rookie back-up point guard makes a mistake. You could even say the same thing about Victor Oladipo as he learned to become a viable No. 2 option on most nights for this team. Those little developmental moments make the nucleus of this team moving forward. But at the core of all this development has been the patience to keep Westbrook on the bench to rest when the situation was screaming for him to get back in the game.
Whether he plays in one or both of the next two games doesn’t matter. He’ll be ready for the playoffs, regardless. If he plays in any of the next two games, you can guarantee the team isn’t going to do something stupid to jeopardize their playoff chances. The last second heroics for the regular season ended on Sunday in Denver. If Westbrook doesn’t win the game by the end of the third quarter, he’ll have to depend on his teammates to take it from there. But it’s okay. It’s not like this is their first time playing. They’ll be ready. They’ve been playing all season long.
Season Series Summary
This is the fourth and final meeting of the season between these two division rivals. The Thunder currently lead the season series 2-1, winning the first two games of the season series by 12 points or more. Then they lost their last meeting against Minnesota, 96-86, in a game where Westbrook quadruple-doubled (points, rebounds, assists, and, unfortunately, turnovers).
- Doug McDermott – Out (knee)
- Andre Roberson – Out (rest)
- Russell Westbrook – Out (rest)
- Taj Gibson – Out (rest)
Three Big Things
1. Defending The Paint
The Timberwolves are 30th in the league in made 3-point FGs. They only make 7.3 per game, which accounts for just 20.5% of their points scored. Instead, they do a lot of their damage in the paint, where they score 43.1% of their points. Karl Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Andrew Wiggins all do their best work either in the paint or driving to the paint. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson have done relatively well in containing the Timberwolves’ young duo, and will likely be called upon again to do the same tonight.
2. Defend Without Fouling
The Timberwolves get 18.6% of their points from the free throw line. They not only get to the free thrown a lot (24.3 times per game), but they also make their free throws at a high percentage (80.1%, 5th in the league). For a team that struggles from the perimeter, good free throw shooting is like manna from the heavens. If the Thunder allow themselves to play lazy defense (i.e. sticking an arm out on dribble-drives), then Minnesota may find themselves living on the charity stripe in this game.
3. Wearing KAT Down
The Timberwolves have Towns playing nearly 38 minutes per game in the past month and a half. They don’t have a back-up big man and have been using a big rotation of Towns, Dieng, and Adreian Payne. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter by themselves can be a load. But if you have to constantly guard those two brutes for an entire game, the toll on one person can be taxing.