Sixers Host Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder
If there’s any team you don’t want to see when trying to get back on track after losing 16 of your last 17 games, it’s Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Sure, the Thunder are capable of off nights, as evidenced by an inexplicable clunker at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves a week ago. But the Thunder, at 46-22 on the season and have matchup nightmares at virtually every position that make it difficult for the Sixers to compete, even if they were at full strength.
Still, while the Sixers got blown out by the Thunder earlier this season to the tune of a 102-85 defeat in OKC, they have played some surprisingly competitive games against Oklahoma City in recent years.
Most notable among those was a 123-118 overtime loss in Oklahoma City last spring which saw recently-acquired Isaiah Canaan drop 31 points on 10-16 shooting, including 8-13 from three-point range, on the unsuspecting OKC squad. Jason Richardson — yes, Jason Richardson — contributed 29 points as well. That game along accounted for nearly 17 percent of Richardson’s points on the season. So anything is possible, I suppose.
More likely than Isaiah Canaan and Jason Richardson dropping a combined 60 points — especially since Richardson is no longer on the team, a minor detail, for sure — is the Sixers building on the improved defensive effort they saw in the second half of last night’s game against the Washington Wizards.
The Sixers held the Wizards to just 34.1 percent shooting in the second half, outscoring Washington by 14 points in the process. John Wall shot just 2-8 from the field with 7 turnovers after intermission, allowing the Sixers a chance at a competitive game that didn’t seem possible after falling down by 19 at the half.
The Sixers held the Wizards to just 73.7 points per 100 possessions in the second half, while forcing turnovers on nearly a third of their possessions. If that sounds like a strong defensive performance, it was: Washington averages 102.3 points per 100 possessions on the season and has a turnover rate of just 14.3 percent.
It was also a brief moment of defensive competency that the Sixers haven’t been able to sustain of late. At all. Prior to that game the Sixers had been letting up 115.1 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. Prior to Thursday’s loss to the Wizards they had one game, 1, giving up less than 110 points per 100 possessions since the break. One out of 14.
Whether they can build off of that or revert to what’s been their typical defensive performance remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bet money on it carrying over, though.
Still, it was nice to see Nerlens Noel (14 points, 16 rebounds, 7 steals) and Jerami Grant (3 blocks) be the disruptive forces on the defensive end that they’ve shown glimpses of in their short NBA careers. Noel’s line was the first time that’s been accomplished in 26 years. It was reminiscent of the defensive brilliance Noel showed at the end of last season, but has been fleeting and inconsistent for much of this year.
The team may not have many wins in them over the last 14 games of the season, but it would be nice to see more of that.
What: Sixers (9-59) vs Thunder (46-22)
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: 7:00 PM
Watch: Comcast SportsNet
Projected Starting Lineups:
Sixers: Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams
(Note: Starting lineups updated at 5:45 pm).
Joel Embiid (right foot) and Jahlil Okafor (right knee) are both out for the remainder of the season. Robert Covington is out as part of the concussion protocol, and Richaun Holmes is out with an Achilles injury.
The Sixers lost to the Thunder 102-85 back in November, which dropped the Sixers to 0-9 on the season. Russell Westbrook led the Thunder with 21 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists, carrying the Thunder in the absence of Kevin Durant, who missed the game while recovering from a hamstring injury. Nobody on the Sixers scored more than Christian Wood‘s 15 points in the defeat.
What To Look For:
Hustle. Effort. Focus.
Again, the Thunder are so good, focusing too much on the matchup could drive you crazy. They rank second in offensive points per possession, first on offensive rebounding rate (a real problem, since the Sixers rank 28th in defensive rebounding), and fifth in getting to the line.
They’re led by Durant, obviously, who scores 28 points per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range. Russell Westbrook (24 points, 10.4 assists) and Serge Ibaka (12.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) form a big three as strong as any in the league. Nobody truly matches up with them, but especially not this undermanned Sixers squad.
If there was one matchup that will at least be interesting to watch, it’s how much Sixers head coach Brett Brown puts Jerami Grant on Kevin Durant. Grant’s long, athletic, and has the kind of quick-twitch and recovery ability that could at least give him a punchers chance of slowing Durant down.
Durant to Philly? Don’t get your hopes up
A report came out earlier today that Kevin Durant met with Todd Wright, one of the Sixers’ assistant coaches for strength and conditioning. Wright came to the Sixers last offseason from the University of Texas, where he worked with Durant.
Durant then said he liked Philadelphia, which added more fuel to the fire.
Durant will be a free agent next summer, and the Sixers could have nearly $60 million in cap space available.
But keep your expectations in check. It’s going to take more than a coach and an old friend, even a really good old friend, to attract one of the best players in the world. Durant, who will be 28 next season, is going to want to win, and there will be many opportunities better suited for him this summer.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.