The Thunder (2-2) were on the short end of a 115-113 decision at home against the Timberwolves (2-3) last Friday night as Andrew Wiggins banked home a 30-footer at the buzzer after Carmelo Anthony had given Oklahoma City a 113-112 edge with a 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds to play.
The Thunder have since regrouped and rolled past Indiana 114-96 on Wednesday night. Paul George lost a battle of nerves against his former team, fouling out in just 19 minutes and scoring 10 points, but Anthony picked up the slack with 28 points while Russell Westbrook had his second triple-double of the season with 28 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds.
Minnesota, meanwhile, have lost back-to-back games in decisive fashion playing without Jimmy Butler, who has been sidelined with an upper respiratory infection. The Timberwolves have looked lost defensively without him, giving up 252 points in those two defeats after a 122-101 setback at Detroit on Wednesday night. They have fallen to last in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (52.1) and 26th in scoring defense (113.8 points per game) while holding just one of their first five opponents under 107 points.
Three keys to the game
Can anybody on the Wolves defend? - What makes Minnesota's defensive shortcomings all the more surprising, even without Butler, is that Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau is such a demanding taskmaster on that side of the ball. The Wolves have held no one under 46 percent from the field, and with the Thunder's "Big 3" coming to town, it doesn't look like that will happen here, either.
Keep Adams involved - While it's all well and good the Thunder have three legit scorers to contend in the Western Conference, having a fourth option such as Steven Adams could make a huge difference down the road. He's off to a great start, averaging what would be a career-high 13.8 points through the first four games, and shooting 66.7 percent. Adams has been a force on the offensive glass with 15 rebounds on that end in the last two games, so keeping the 7-footer happy and occasionally feeding him would be beneficial.
Hiding Muhammad defensively - Shabazz Muhammad has started the last two games for Butler, and he's had one good game offensively and one bad game offensively. His defense, however, leaves much to be desired. The Timberwolves have been outscored by 41 points in the near 60 minutes he has played in those two defeats, and that pales compared to his seven-minute stint last week against Oklahoma City in which the Thunder were a plus-13 when he was on the court. Starting Thunder guard Andre Roberson has scored 13 points this season, so maybe pairing Muhammad against him could benefit Thibodeau and the Wolves.
Matchup to watch
Russell Westbrook vs Jeff Teague - Even if Butler plays, he will have his hands full guarding either George or Anthony for a few possessions. Jeff Teague is the one who has to cut off the head of Oklahoma City's attack, which with Westbrook is almost mission impossible. While Westbrook totaled 31 points and 10 assists last week, Teague held his own and countered with 14 points and 9 assists for Minnesota. His offensive contribution will be his defense in this matchup.
Oklahoma City Thunder projected starting lineup
PG - Russell Westbrook | SG - Andre Roberson | C - Steven Adams | SF - Paul George | PF - Carmelo Anthony
Minnesota Timberwolves projected starting lineup
PG - Jeff Teague | SG - Shabazz Muhammad | C - Karl-Anthony Towns | SF - Andrew Wiggins | PF - Taj Gibson
With or without Butler, Wiggins has always been a solid play for the Timberwolves against the Thunder. He's averaged 21.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in his last four games in the series and has scored 20.3 points per game in 13 lifetime matchups.
Beyond Westbrook, a must-play who has four triple-doubles versus the Wolves, George might be the better play than Anthony because he's historically shot better against Minnesota. George has averaged 20.5 points in 13 games, shooting 50.8 percent from 3-point range (33 for 65) and 48.4 percent overall.
Between Minnesota's defensive struggles and the fact the teams combined to score 228 points in the first game with him on the court, the over should strongly be considered at any point total below 225. The over has also hit 16 times in Minnesota's last 22 games dating back to last season.
While things could change given Butler's availability, it is hard to see a scenario in which the Timberwolves clamp down defensively on the Thunder. And even if Butler plays, his minutes will likely be limited since he probably won't be 100 percent.
Besides the defensive struggles, Minnesota got little beyond Wiggins, Towns and Teague offensively at Detroit as the rest of the team shot a combined 14 for 43 (32.6 percent). One can also see Oklahoma City growing more comfortable running its offensive sets, which may have been coach Billy Donovan's greatest challenge since he has three great scorers.
This looks like a case where the Thunder have just too much firepower at the moment for the Timberwolves and should come away with a 125-109 victory.
This game will be televised nationally on NBA TV and NBA TV Canada, and locally by Fox Sports Net North and Fox Sports Oklahoma. Tip-off time is 8pm ET.
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