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Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Thunder, Mar. 20

All of a sudden there’s a bit of panic over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After winning 11 of 12 between mid-January and the All-Star break to look a potential threat to the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder are just 5-10 over their last 15 games which includes two overtime victories. Before Feb. 12, the Thunder allowed a fourth-best 105 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass while forcing the most turnovers and doing quite a good job of keeping teams off the glass.

Over the last 15 games, though, the Thunder have dropped to 10th in defensive efficiency allowing almost four more points per 100 possessions and their turnovers forced rate has dropped to 13th. But their problems don’t start there. They’re scoring 5.5 points less per 100 possessions which drops them from a respectable 14th in the league to 29th at 105.6 points scored per 100 possessions. What’s causing the drop-off you ask?

After shooting a blistering 41.3 percent on over 10 attempts per game from beyond the arc through Feb. 12, Paul George has hit a brick wall since, making just 29.7 percent of his 10.7 three-point attempts per game. Even though Wesbtrook has snapped out of his five-month long funk with 35 percent shooting from deep on 8.6 attempts per game since Feb. 12, that’s cancelled out by Dennis Schroder’s 10 percent drop-off in finding the bottom of the net from the three-point line.

After sitting pretty in third for a time, the Thunder are now coming apart at the seams to fall to sixth in the Western Conference, tied with the San Antonio Spurs at 42-29 on the season and just a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz and a single game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Don’t get too excited Raptor fans, since just as all the information would suggest the Thunder are ripe for the picking, George appears to have set aside his struggles over the last three games (all losses), making 14-of-34 (41.2 percent) shots from downtown while averaging 32 points per game. As you might expect, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double for what would be the third straight season, and when you’ve got two aces up your sleeve like those two, there’s always the threat that the volcano could erupt at any moment.

Add to that the fact that Kyle Lowry will miss out, the Toronto Raptors will be challenged to find answers against a team desperate to turn things around. Fred VanVleet looked terrific against the New York Knicks, and while his daughter Sanaa stole the show post-game, VanVleet will be hard pressed to do the same going up against Westbrook.

One matchup that does particularly intrigue me (outside of the obvious PG vs. Kawhi answer) is the one between Pascal Siakam and Jerami Grant. The Thunder forward possesses the exact type of size, quickness and agility to pose problems for Siakam, and what solutions the Cameroonian is able to find whether it be during his own time before the game or making adjustments in-game, it should be a captivating battle.

Two oak trees in Steven Adams and Marc Gasol should be another sight to behold, as the two will undoubtedly look to maximize their unique advantages to give their team an edge. The Thunder have been dominant offensive rebounders for several seasons now, and the Kiwi’s ability on that end has played a huge role in that. Gasol may be nowhere near the rebounder, but his ability to initiate offense out of the center position is second to just Nikola Jokic currently.

Over his three starts in the absence of Serge Ibaka, Gasol averaged 12 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and perhaps most encouragingly, was able to ramp up his three-point shooting attempting 13 of them while connecting five times. To me, this is a vital aspect of the Spaniard’s game that needs to be prevalent to address the weaknesses the Raptors had at the position. Specifically for this game, if Gasol can drag Adams out to the perimeter, it should help open up the paint for guys like Leonard and Siakam to go to work.

Can Jeremy Lin build on his 20-point performance against the New York Knicks? Here are the details to find out:

GAME INFO

Time: 9:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. PT.
TV: Sportsnet ONE. Radio: TSN 1050.

RAPTORS UPDATES

Lowry is out but Leonard returns after sitting due to load management. Ibaka is back, too, after serving his three-game suspension for his scrap with Marquese Chriss against the Cleveland Cavaliers. With the predominantly inside game that Adams plays, Gasol should be the starter in this one, I think.

PG: Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd
SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell, Malcolm Miller
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Eric Moreland
OUT: Kyle Lowry

THUNDER UPDATES

Westbrook returns from a one-game suspension due to an accumulation of technical fouls while Nerlens Noel is a game time decision due to a left quad contusion. He was seen going through non-contact drills after practice on Tuesday so it will be interesting to see what he has to give if he does indeed suit up.

PG: Russell Westbrook, Dennis Schroder, Raymond Felton
SG: Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo
SF: Paul George, Abdel Nader, Deonte Burton
PF: Jerami Grant, Markieff Morris, Patrick Patterson
C: Steven Adams
TBD: Nerlens Noel
OUT: Andre Roberson

THE LINE

The Raptors are 4.5-point underdogs and the over/under is set at 227.

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