8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Oklahoma City -5.0
As the Trade Deadline approaches, and the race for the Playoffs heats up, the Oklahoma City Thunder kick off the second half of the NBA Regular Season at home against the Dallas Mavericks. Both teams have been the subject of numerous comings and goings, of both the potential and actual varieties as they continue to load up on reinforcements for yet another marathon run through the Western Conference. For the Mavericks (36-19, 3rd in Southwest), Management has been one of the most active throughout the campaign, as they have already made a number of transactions after a busy Offseason. Rick Carlisle and Co. welcomed Rajon Rondo to the fold in late December from The Boston Celtics via multi-player deal, and as of Wednesday acquired Amar’e Stoudemire after the Foward’s contract was bought out by the woeful New York Knicks. Though many years removed from the explosive feel he was in Phoenix, the hope is that the six-time All-Star will solidify a Bench that has been particularly thin given an orbital bone/nasal fracture to Rondo. Currently sitting in Fifth in the Western Conference, the Mavs must keep pace with the rest of the pack, and they’re banking on Stoudemire being just what the doctor ordered. The 32-year old logged thirty-six games for the Knicks earlier this season, fourteen of which were starts; at 24.0 minutes per contest, his most in three years, Stoudemire has averaged 12.0 points on 54.3% shooting, along with 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 assist, and 0.9 blocks, including a 19.7 PER. Slotted in behind the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and the ailing Tyson Chandler, the latter nursing a sprained left ankle, the 6-10 big man could be a real asset in a reserve role. And the most attractive part of the deal? Stoudemire will only cost Dallas the Veteran Minimum, or in other terms $460,00 over the rest of the season. With a rotation loaded with postseason experience and stars, Carlisle’s primary task will be getting them all on the court healthy, and keeping them there.
Indeed, the All-Star Break came at the right time for the Mavericks who are nursing more than a few bumps and bruises sustained from the first fifty-five games of the Regular Season. As mentioned earlier, Rondo sustained a broken orbital bone under his left eye, while Chandler suffered a sprained ankle this past Monday. The former is expected to return to action tonight, while the latter is at this point listed as Questionable. With neither player serving on the Mavericks’ roster last season, both players, along with Stoudemire need to get on the court, and build chemistry with their new teammates. It should be interesting to see how they each fit in what has been one of the most potent offensive teams in the league; Dallas has averaged 106.3 points (1st Overall) on 46.5% shooting from the field (6th Overall), including 51.4% from within the three-point arc (3rd Overall) and 35.8% from beyond it (11th Overall), all the while dishing out 23.0 assists (6th Overall) and committing just 12.3 turnovers (3rd Overall) per game. Furthermore, they rank fourth in Effective Field Goal Percentage (52.1%), and third in Turnover Percentage (11.4%). With gunners such as the aforementioned Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons creating cavernous space for the likes of Rondo and Monta Ellis to slash to the rim, Carlisle’s offense is a fine-tuned machine. However, that wasn’t the case in their final game heading into the Break, as they barely topped the struggling Utah Jazz in a narrow 87-82 victory. In a contest in which both teams visibly exhibited fatigue, the hosts raced out to a 22-8 lead in the first twelve minutes, despite only managing to shoot a dreadful 37.3% from the field. Without Rondo or Chandler, only two Mavs scored in double-figures, with J.J. Barea leading the way with twenty-points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), with Nowitzki shipping in with fifteen of his own on 5-of-14 shooting (35.7%). The visiting Jazz bludgeoned them on the glass (52-38), particularly on the offensive end (14-7), and blocked seven shots. However, the difference in the game was turnovers and free-throws; Dallas was a solid 21-of-26 from the charity stripe (80.8%), outscoring the opposition by ten points, and forced eighteen turnovers in the win. It’s not everyday a team wins a contest in which they shoot less than 40.0% from the field, but their defense had something to say about it. Much maligned throughout the first half of the season, the home side dug in and shut the young Jazz down on the opposite end of the floor, relegating them to 37.5% shooting overall, and harassing them into eighteen turnovers, eleven of which were steals. Defending Utah is one thing, but they will need to bring that same level of focus against the Thunder tonight, as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the former who has averaged 34.0 points in his last seven outings against them, and the latter who nearly notched a triple-double, amassing eighteen points, nine rebounds, and nine assists in the 112-10107 Mavericks’ win. Nowitzki scored a game-high thirty points that night, which marked Dallas’ fourth consecutive victory over Oklahoma City, breaking a seven-game losing streak beforehand.
Meanwhile, on the outside looking in lie the Thunder (28-25, 2nd in Northwest), who currently trail the Phoenix Suns by a half-game for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Injuries dogged Scott Brooks’ squad throughout the early stages of the campaign, as they were forced to play without the services of both Durant and Westbrook, with the former missing twenty-seven games and the latter missing twenty respectively due to a number of ailments. As you could imagine, that reflected in their record quite significantly, as the Thunder got off to a miserable 5-13 start, but with the return of said dynamic duo so did the victories; they have since gone 23-12 with Westbrook retuning from a broken hand and Durant shortly thereafter. Of all the great teams in the mighty Western Conference, few are as dependent on two players like Oklahoma City; Durant and Westbrook have accounted for 51.7 points, which is responsible for 51.3% of the team’s overall offensive output, while both players have dished out 11.6 assists, proving they value in creating for others as well. Like their opponent tonight, the All-Star Break came at a very opportunistic time, affording them the luxury of healing over the duration of the week-long respite. Though those particular players highlighted the West’s All-Star team, using the weekend as a potential springboard for things to come, especially Westbrook. After being named to his fifth All-Star Team, the explosive Point Guard scored a whopping 41 points, nearly eclipsing Wilt Chamberlain’s hallowed record of 42 set back in 1962, with his 27 first half points setting an All-Star record of his own. Anytime your name is mentioned with the Big Dipper’s, you’re doing something right, and Westbrook took the Big Apple by storm this past weekend. Now with twenty-nine games remaining, Management will be looking to bolster their roster before today’s deadline, even if they have to shed some weight beforehand.
With the Deadline set later today, the Thunder are expected to be a significant player, as they attempt to add some much needed reinforcements for an impending postseason run. However, in order to do so, they’re likely going to have part ways with one Reggie Jackson, their solid backup Point Guard, who was essential in their seven-game series victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the First Round of last year’s Playoffs. Now, given Westbrook’s recent injury history, one would think that Oklahoma City would be inclined to hang on to a youthful, 24-year old, averaging 12.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game, but with Free Agency looming, Brooks and Co. look prepared to utilize him as a bargaining chip for someone else. As intimated earlier, the third-year youngster has been a formidable playmaker at times this season, particularly when both Westbrook and Durant were sidelined with injuries. In fourteen games in the month of November, Jackson averaged 19.5 points on 41.5% shooting from the field, along with 5.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists in 38.2 minutes of action, but in February his role has diminished significantly, logging just 19.1 minutes for 6.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. Brooks doesn’t have the deepest of benches, and one wouldn’t deem it very logical to part ways with arguably your top contributor off it, but that seems precisely what Management seems hell-bent on doing. So, just who are they looking to land, you ask? Reports have spread throughout league circles that Oklahoma City could make Jackson the centerpiece of any deal for the likes of Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez or Denver’s Arron Afflalo, each of whom would improve the Thunder’s short rotation. Lopez, a legitimate seven-footer with an excellent offensive repertoire and a checkered injury history would give this team the true low-post threat that they’ve lacked since moving to Oklahoma City years ago, while Afflalo is one of the better two-way Guards in the league and figures to slot in quite nicely between Durant and Westbrook, the latter whom he played with in his collegiate days back at UCLA. After missing virtually all of the 2013-2014 term with a broken foot, Lopez has participated in forty-two games for the Nets, twenty-two of which are starts, averaging 15.3 points on 50.2% shooting from the field, with 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Afflalo on the other hand, has posted 14.5 points on 42.8% shooting, along with 3.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists after penning a one-year deal with the Nuggets in the Offseason. Of course both players come with one small caveat; each could be an unrestricted Free Agent after the season, with Lopez having a Player Option that would allow him to be released from his current deal. It should be interesting to see what Oklahoma City does over the next few hours, for in order to land either of these guys, they’re going to have give up not just Jackson, but a considerable part of their already shallow bench, which may not be the wisest of decisions. But then again, when you’re talking about the Playoffs in the Western Conference, desperation is a very real thing.