Hawks at Thunder Game Preview: How to Watch & What to Expect
The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t what they used to be, and in that way they have simply been themselves. For the first time in years, the team is free from existential questions, monumental inflection points, and the scrutiny that comes with contending for a championship year after heartbreaking year. When Sam Presti traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook this summer, he positioned Oklahoma City to rebuild, but also relieved it from the weight of expectation. As a result, the Thunder have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA this year. Every player has the liberty to be himself, and the product is an almost accidental collection of individual players whose skill sets happen to complement one another’s in a delightful manner.
Game Time: Friday, January 24, 2020, 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
TV: FOX Sports Southeast, FOX Sports Oklahoma
Streaming: NBA League Pass, FOX Sports Go
Spread: OKC -10.5 (DraftKings)
Amid trade rumors that have swirled since the moment Presti dealt Westbrook for Chris Paul, the Thunder haven’t fractured, but rather played a more connected style of basketball than ever before. Oklahoma City’s offense has all the control and assurance that comes with employing Paul, one of the greatest halfcourt offensive engines in NBA history, with the optionality necessary to accommodate the likes of Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It usually begins with Paul initiating via the pick-and-roll, but could just as easily detour into one of Gilgeous-Alexander’s arrhythmic drives, or pivot through Steven Adams in the high post to Gallinari spotting up or attacking a closeout.
Those skills are tied together by intelligence and competitiveness. The Thunder play hard, but remain under control – a collective embodiment of Paul’s regimented attitude toward the game. The Hawks’ approach on Friday must, above all else, start from matching OKC’s intensity.
“I expect them to be probably the most competitive team we play,” Lloyd Pierce said. “This is a team that everyone thought was gonna just re-tool and rebuild. CP and his demeanor and his competitiveness has shown in all their guys. … They’re playing for something, they’re playing with purpose, they’re playing together.”
Despite a formidable frontcourt of Adams and Gallinari, Oklahoma City plays mostly through its guards, and features three point guards in almost equal measure. Paul is the team’s most central and reliable pillar, but Gilgeous Alexander takes on a larger portion of the scoring load while Dennis Schröder is having the best season of his career off the bench. That gives Billy Donovan the ability to keep at least two above average creators on the floor at all times, and on occasion, he’ll play all three of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schröder together. Gilgeous-Alexander has the length to cover most non-star wings, while Paul remains one of the league’s savviest on-ball defenders and Schröder has shown more commitment to that end of the floor than he has since his early days in Atlanta.
“It’s guard basketball and we like our guards,” Pierce said. “They play really small and they’ve got playmakers, and we’re going to need all of our guys to be playmakers as well.”
The contrast between Atlanta and Oklahoma City’s point guards couldn’t be more stark. While both Paul and Trae Young are elite offensive players, they affect the game in vastly different ways. Where Paul plays with almost impatient control, Young operates with more freedom. He’ll launch deep jumpers with impunity while Paul prefers to get to his spots and search for the best possible shot. Both are genius passers, but distribute in their own distinct styles. Both have put together All Star-worthy seasons.
It’s likely that the Hawks put Young on Terrance Ferguson on defense while the longer and more active Cam Reddish chases Paul. The matchup between Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Huerter will also be a fascinating one to track, and the Hawks must make a concerted effort to keep the burly Adams off the boards.
Both teams could be without central players on Friday. Adams is listed as questionable with a left ankle injury while Nerlens Noel, who has been excellent this season and will likely play, has also been dealing with left ankle soreness in recent weeks. Young is questionable with a bruised right thigh, though the circumstances – Young is from Oklahoma and was named an All Star last night – he’ll likely do everything possible to play in his home state. “I try to fight through as much pain as I can,” he said.
The Hawks will need their All Star in a guard-heavy game, and must be wary of falling down early as they have in each of the last three games. Consistency and competitiveness have been ongoing issues for Atlanta all season. They’ll need to play with the ferocity they showed late against Toronto and Los Angeles to keep up with one of the NBA’s most aggressive teams.
“We have to be ultra-competitive,” Pierce said. “We have to meet the challenge. We have to bring the fight to them, and I look forward to it.”