OKC Thunder: Five Things to Watch Tonight in Los Angeles

The OKC Thunder have quickly played their way into the conversation for most inconsistent team in the NBA. Which team will show up tonight?

It’s almost impossible to predict which OKC Thunder team is going to take the court each night. Sometimes they look like championship contenders (first game against the Clippers) while other times they look like a lottery team (Sunday evening against the Pacers).

Nov 14, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo (5) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t understand it. Going into the season the one thing I was sure of was that Russell Westbrook would force this team to play hard every night. That hasn’t been the case.

With Semaj Christon out again tonight, the emphasis is going to be on Victor Oladipo and his ability to run the second-unit. He did a marvelous job on Sunday, but we will get into that later on in this slideshow.

The Los Angeles Lakers are coming into Monday night with a 7-7 record, exceeding everyone’s (but mine) expectations. They’ve lost two straight to the Spurs and Bulls and may be playing without D’Angelo Russell, which is probably a good thing for LA considering OKC’s performances against teams without starters this season.

So what should we be watching for tonight? Well, I have five items featured for you if you’re interested. You clicked on the link so I assume you are. I’m done stalling. Let’s get started!

5. Which Russell Westbrook is going to show up tonight?

I have not been happy with Russ’ play of recent; well basically just Sunday’s game. In the two games prior (both Thunder wins) Westbrook was efficient from the field because he was attacking the paint and taking smart shots.

But he reverted back to Dangerous Russell on Sunday. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, Westbrook stops passing. He took six of the Thunder’s last eight shots in the fourth quarter, than followed that up with four straight shots in OT.

Nov 5, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) watches his team play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 5, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) watches his team play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Yes Russ is a dangerous scorer, but teams pack the paint to stop his driving ability, especially in the fourth quarter. It’s no fluke that the Thunder scored on the two shots Russ didn’t take, because those guys (Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter) were wide open.

When Westbrook focuses on getting his teammates involved for 48 minutes the Thunder are in a much better place offensively AND defensively. When guys are getting passed the rock they are more in tune with the game (see the defensive decline of Serge Ibaka).

At the end of this game, check the box score to see how many shots Russ took. If he took 25 or more, I’d be willing to bet the Thunder lost.

4. How will the Thunder handle LA’s ball movement?

When these two teams matched up for the first time this season, Oklahoma City did a fantastic job limiting the Lakers from behind the arc. But that game was also the beginning of the most impressive defensive stretch of the season for OKC.

Oct 30, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) shoots the ball over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kyle Singler (15) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 30, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) shoots the ball over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kyle Singler (15) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In five games they gave up 96 to the Lakers, 83 to the Clippers, 122 to Golden State (disregard that), 92 to the Timberwolves and 85 to the Heat. The defensive rotations were incredible and it seemed like the team had fully bought into a defense-first identity.

Since then the defense has been awful. There has been a lack of communication from the starters and bench players alike; OKC has given up 100 points in all seven games since the Miami game. The help defense that made them so scary has faltered and teams are capitalizing in the increase in open opportunities.

In their first matchup, the Thunder forced the Lakers to shoot 7-32 from the three-point line. If Los Angeles is moving the ball and Oklahoma City isn’t communicating, the Thunder will get torched on defense. It’s going to start and end with constant communication between all five guys on the court if they expect to hold LA under 100 points again.

3. Is Victor Oladipo truly the second-unit savior?

I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’ve been calling for Dipo to come off the bench virtually all season. The Thunder have reportedly told Victor they want him to let loose on the offensive end, but playing with Russell Westbrook hinders his opportunities.

Nov 18, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo (5) shoots the ball in front of Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 18, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo (5) shoots the ball in front of Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With Dipo manning the second unit on Sunday, the bench put up their best numbers of the season. They outscored the Pacers by 55 collectively, their best number of the season; that has everything to do with Victor being the lead-man.

The bench is comprised of interesting individual pieces, but without a true point guard they cannot perform at their best. As great as Semaj Christon’s assist numbers are, he doesn’t do a good job of getting the second-unit into offensive sets. Although Dipo isn’t a true pg, he at least forced the issue.

Another benefit of running Dipo with the bench is that he has more freedom to chuck up shots. Personally I don’t want Victor shooting more than 15 times a game, but if he is going to become an all-star (like everyone expects) he needs to grow into that role by playing that style.

Playing alongside Russ is only limiting the growth of Dipo. Start him on the bench and replace him with rookie Alex Abrines. I’m begging you Billy.

Want your voice heard? Join the Thunderous Intentions team!

2. Is Steven Adams actually hurt?

This is going to be key tonight. Timofey Mozgov isn’t going to drop 30 points or anything, but he can put up big rebounding numbers while he’s on the court. The Pacers rank in the bottom 10 of rebounding numbers but were able to grab 59 against the Thunder, matching an OKC team ranked in the top three.

November 3, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) dribbles the ball against Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia (27) during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

November 3, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) dribbles the ball against Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia (27) during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

That statistical anomaly isn’t all Adams fault, but he could have done a much better job boxing out opponents on both ends of the court. Ever since the bandage went on Adams right hand his play has decreased significantly.  The Big Kiwi hasn’t been the defensive force we are accustomed too and his activity on the offensive blocks has decreased as well.

The OKC Thunder need Adams to be a force down-low to instill the defensive identity this team supposedly wants to impress. He has a rare combination of size, speed and strength but Adams’ skillset is still very raw. Until he improves his post moves and touch in the inside, the 23-year old has to use his physical tools to dominate.

Luckily for Adams and Thunder fans, his physical gifts are more than enough for the big man to average a triple-double. Sadly for Adams and Thunder fans, we haven’t seen those physical tools the past few games. Maybe something changes tonight.

1. How many assists will the Thunder record?

This is the key for tonight. When the Thunder move the ball, they win. A lot of this goes hand in hand with the first item I noted: which Russ will come out.

Oct 28, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Domantas Sabonis (3) handles the ball while guarded by Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 28, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Domantas Sabonis (3) handles the ball while guarded by Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When Westbrook is moving the ball around it wears off on the rest of his teammates. In the Thunder’s best games this year they destroy their average of 21 assists a game. The first game against the Lakers? 29. The win against the Rockets on Wednesday? 25. The ugly loss to the Pistons? 16.

If anything, playing the Lakers should be a wake-up call for this team. LA is lightyears better than last year’s team because of the simple addition of Luke Walton; they are averaging almost four more assists per game compared to last year. After winning only 17 games last year, LA has already won 7 through their first 14.

Hopefully Billy Donovan uses game film to impress upon his team what happens when you play unselfishly. The heavy-usage Russ is nice when he’s shooting 60%, but not when he’s barely scraping 30%.

If the OKC Thunder get more than 25 assists tonight, they will win. They can still win without hitting that mark, but the chances are slim.

Tip-off is scheduled for 9:30 central time.

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