Even without the dynamic James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder have still managed to play some excellent basketball. The team currently owns the best record in the NBA and extended its winning streak to 12 games against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.
There is little time for celebration. The Thunder continue their road trip tonight when they face the young and scrappy Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center.
Minnesota is celebrating the return of dynamic point guard Ricky Rubio, who missed the start of the season recovering from ACL surgery, and having him in the lineup has injected some life into a team that has looked sluggish at times. The Timberwolves will need that life against Oklahoma City, which is clearly playing like it wants another trip to the NBA Finals.
The Timberwolves clearly want the same, and don't want to wait long. GM David Kahn vastly improved the team by bringing forward Andrei Kirilenko back to the NBA and also signing Russian guard Alexey Shved, both of whom have done some fine work in Minnesota.
With Rubio back in the game, be it in the starting lineup or off the bench, the Thunder need to be extra focused tonight. Minnesota is a division rival and if it gets hot, it could cause some trouble for OKC down the stretch.
Time: Thursday, December 20th, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: TNT, Fox Sports Oklahoma HD
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (21-4) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (12-11)
Betting Lines: Not available as of Thursday, December 20, 8:32 a.m. EST
Injuries: Ricky Rubio (knee, expected to play), Josh Howard (knee, out), Brandon Roy (knee, out), Malcolm Lee (knee, out)
Key Storyline: Can Anyone Break OKC's Streak?
Injuries may have plagued Minnesota all season, but the team has always performed well at home, going 7-3 at the Target Center. Likewise, Oklahoma City has performed well on the road, going 7-2.
The Timberwolves will also have some extra incentive to play hard tonight. Not only would a win put them back at .500, but it would also snap the Thunder's 12-game winning streak. More importantly, a win over the best team in the NBA would be quite the momentum builder.
Of course, it's not going to be at all easy for the young 'Wolves. Kevin Love has continued to struggle with his shooting accuracy, despite posting respectable averages, and Rubio is unlikely to play more than 20 minutes as he continues his recovery.
This could definitely pose a problem, as the Thunder are at full strength and are the reigning Western Conference champions. Minnesota will thus need to turn on the afterburners, not giving away any opportunities or taking any possessions off.
That is all easier said than done, considering the Thunder's balanced attack and dangerous defense. Thus, for Minnesota to win this game and break Oklahoma City's streak, the strategy is simple.
It just has to want it more.
Key Matchup: Serge Ibaka vs. Kevin Love
All injuries aside, the Timberwolves simply need Kevin Love to get back on track for the team to start living up to its potential. Since returning from a broken hand in November, Love has averaged 19 points and 14.2 rebounds, not bad numbers at all.
The bad part is that his percentages have been atrocious. He has shot just 36 percent from the field, 22 percent from long range and 68 percent from the charity stripe. These are all well below his respective career averages of 45, 36 and 81 percent.
Unfortunately for Love, tonight being the night where he rights the ship is highly unlikely. He will be matched up against fellow power forward Serge Ibaka, who has established himself as one of the NBA's premier defensive players over the past couple of years.
Like Love, Ibaka is 6'10". Unlike the former UCLA Bruin, he is a defensive-oriented player, averaging three blocked shots per game.
Ibaka has also added some offense to his repertoire this season and is averaging 14.2 points per game. His improved performance there has certainly helped the Thunder thus far, but he is still mostly a defensive presence who only scores as necessary.
Love needs to have some success scoring on Ibaka if Timberwolves are even to have a fighting chance. He is still the team's best scorer, despite his struggles, and his teammates need him to start heating up.
Having Rubio back on the court should help, as Love shot 10-of-20 from the field in their first game playing together this year.
X-Factor: Nikola Pekovic
As great as Oklahoma City is, it has a glaring hole at center. Kendrick Perkins is a good low-post presence, but is anything but an elite center. He has the size at 6'10", 270 pounds, but is way too slow on his feet. His career averages of 6.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game are just too low for someone at his position, and this is where Minnesota has a great advantage.
The Timberwolves have Nikola Pekovic at center, and they need him to have a great game in the event that Love is shut down by Ibaka. He is not much bigger than his likely defender in Perkins, at a burly 6'11", 295 pounds.
Pekovic will be able to get past the slow-footed Perkins. Despite his size, Pekovic actually tries to attack the basket. Minnesota needs him to do that tonight, and consistently well.
Pekovic has averaged 15.6 points and 7.8 rebounds on the season and has upped his effort over his last five games. Over that stretch, he is averaging 22.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
He needs to continue his hot streak tonight and exploit Oklahoma City's weakness in the middle. This means driving hard to the basket and not being afraid to draw fouls.
The fact is that Love is going to be in for a long night with Ibaka guarding him, and Pekovic needs to pull his share of the weight in the frontcourt. Otherwise, Oklahoma City extending its streak goes from being a possibility to a certainty.
Note: With Lee injured, Shved is the probable starter at shooting guard.
As much as Minnesota may want to win this game at home, tonight isn't going to be its night. The Thunder are just too deep and too good and will extend their streak to 13 games.
Love will post another double-double, but with nightmarish percentages thanks to the pesky defense of Ibaka. Not even another big night from Pekovic will be able to stop the rolling Thunder in their quest for a championship, and the saddest part is that Minnesota will not even be able to keep it close.
Who will win?
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will both have fine scoring nights, with Durant showcasing his new and improved defense and Westbrook dishing out assist after assist. Ibaka will have a double-double while also swatting a few shots away. Kevin Martin will be a spark off the bench as he continues to make his case for Sixth Man of the Year.
Andrei Kirilenko may be able to help keep the game close early on, but not even Rubio will be able to save Minnesota tonight. In limited playing time, he will only be able to do so much, and his presence late in the game will be sorely missed.
It will be a tough night for Minnesota fans.
Oklahoma City Thunder 113, Minnesota Timberwolves 97