When you’re 25-14 it is hard to come by any type of revenge game, but the Raptors find themselves in that position tonight as they visit the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just 17 days ago the Thunder and Raptors were caught in a back-and-forth game with the Thunder sealing a 98-97 victory in the end.
There have been a lot of surprising teams this season (good and bad) based on results in comparison to pre-season expectations, but the Thunder may be the league’s biggest surprise. Once believed to be among the league’s worst teams they currently sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and are well above .500 with a record of 23-17.
While it isn’t hard to argue that the Raptors at full health are better than the Thunder, OKC has cemented itself as one of the league’s more dangerous groups currently. Whether it be the fourth quarter heroics of Chris Paul providing elite clutch shot making and running the offence to perfection, or the explosion of second year Canadian guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder have talent up and down the roster that contribute.
Shai in particular has been a revelation this season, with averages of 19.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists (ESPN stats). He also chips in 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks per game, while making NBA basketball look smoother than most NBA vets can. SGA plays at a different speed and slinks through traffic for finishes at the lane, while also shooting 34.3 percent on 3.6 triples per game.
Monday night saw SGA take his game to another level still, notching the first triple-double of his career with 20 points (on 8-of-12 shooting!), 20 rebounds, and 10 assists against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Shai became just the second Canadian ever to record a triple double in the NBA (Steve Nash being the first), is just the second guard with a 20p/20r/10a game in the last 30 seasons (Russell Westbrook is the other), and is also the youngest player since Shaquille O’Neal to put up a triple double with 20 rebounds.
To put it simply, Shai is real good. And he showed just that in his visit to Toronto on December 29th. Shai not only matched his career high of 32 points, he did so by draining the winning jumper with 36 seconds left.
Thankfully, the Raptors are a much different team than the one OKC last saw. To mixed results from each the Raptors welcome back both Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell on Sunday, and tonight brings about the return of Marc Gasol after a 12 game absence.
It’s presently unknown whether Gasol will return to the starting line-up tonight with Serge Ibaka currently playing among the best basketball of his career, but having another high-IQ passer and defender will certainly go a long way. Unless something changes today it sounds as if only Fred VanVleet remains on the injury report (and Dewan Hernandez, but that’s less consequential at this time). Based on today’s status, NBA betting sites have OKC as a one point favorite.
OKC has been near average defensive team, giving up 107 points per 100 possessions (13th in the NBA), but there are certainly areas where they excel. The Thunder are among the league leaders in limiting 3 point attempts, as just 35.1 percent of opponent shots are from deep (5th in NBA). Along with limiting 3 point attempts defensively, OKC also does an excellent job of limiting their own shots from deep, averaging 29.8 attempts from 3 a game. Even 3 years ago this would have placed them in the top 7 across the league, but with the continued rise in valuing of the 3 point shot 29.8 attempts places them squarely at 4th worst in the association.
Toronto is finally healthy (mostly) and should be better positioned to walk away with the victory this evening, but reintegrating several players at the same time can come with its own challenges, as we saw in their last game. Siakam came out on fire but was limited to just 2 points in the second half, while Norm appeared lost on defence for lengthy chunks of time.
Bringing back Gasol will likely be a similar up-and-down experience, but all three obviously make Toronto a much more versatile and dangerous team on both ends of the floor. It will take a good effort to regroup and to leave Oklahoma with a victory.