Complete Guide to Thunder vs. Spurs and Saturday's NBA Action

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2013

Complete Guide to Thunder vs. Spurs and Saturday's NBA Action

0 of 6

    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    If you're craving basketball, Saturday's lineup of 12 enticing games should help satisfy your appetite. 

    The headliner is a showdown between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals, as OKC will be looking to extend its winning streak to nine games after defeating the Chicago Bulls, 107-95, on Thursday night.  

    The good news for fans is that they won't have to wait long for action to tip off on Saturday, as the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks will square off at noon while the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics will meet in an Eastern Conference duel just one hour later.

    And with stars like Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyrie Irving, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis and James Harden all in action, fans should settle in for a relaxing and highly entertaining day of hoops.  

     

    Saturday's Lineup

    Memphis Grizzlies vs. New York Knicks, 12 p.m. ET

    Washington Wizards vs. Boston Celtics, 1 p.m. ET

    Sacramento Kings vs. Orlando Magic, 7 p.m. ET

    Utah Jazz vs. Charlotte Bobcats, 7:30 p.m. ET

    Houston Rockets vs. Detroit Pistons, 7:30 p.m. ET

    Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Chicago Bulls, 8 p.m. ET (NBA TV)

    Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 8:30 p.m. ET

    Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs, 8:30 pm. ET

    Dallas Mavericks vs. Phoenix Suns, 9 p.m. ET

    New Orleans Pelicans vs. Portland Trail Blazers, 10 p.m. ET

    Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors, 10:30 p.m. ET

    Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 pm. ET (NBA TV)

     

    All statistics are current as of Dec. 20, and are courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com unless noted otherwise. 

Best Matchup of the Night: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs

1 of 6

    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Two Western Conference elites will clash on Saturday when the Oklahoma City Thunder travel to San Antonio for a showdown with Gregg Popovich's Spurs. 

    Despite sitting Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan on Thursday night, the Spurs were able to knock off the Golden State Warriors, 104-102, and will now enter Saturday's contest well-rested. 

    The real mystery, though, surrounds the availability of Tony Parker, who's missed the Spurs' last two games with a bruised left shin. Parker's currently questionable, but if he can't go, it'll be up to Patty Mills (20 points on 8-of-17 shooting against Golden State) to go head-to-head with Russell Westbrook

    The good news for the Spurs is that they'll get to play host to the red-hot Thunder, who have yet to lose at home this season. However, that only means so much, considering the Thunder enter Saturday night having won eight in a row, nine of their past 10 and and 16 of their past 17 dating back to Nov. 16. 

    And while Oklahoma City's offense has been predictably spectacular, dropping 108.1 points per 100 possessions, it's the team's defense that's turning heads. 

    Through 25 games, Oklahoma City has surrendered the league's fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (100.6) and is allowing opponents to shoot just 41.9 percent from the field, the second-best mark in the league.

    But as is always the case, the spotlight will be cast on Kevin Durant.

    The league's leading scorer (28.7 points per game) has topped the 30-point mark 13 times already this season and has posted unconscious shooting splits of .557/.550/.883 through 11 games this month. In addition, Durant currently ranks fourth overall in defensive win shares (1.7) behind only Paul George, DeAndre Jordan and Roy Hibbert.  

    Matched up against a Spurs defense that's allowing the league's second-fewest points per 100 possessions (99.1) and an offense that boasts five double-figure scorers, Durant and the Thunder should have their hands full in a game that projects as one of the season's best yet. 

Must-See Individual Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Andre Drummond

2 of 6

    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    The original matchup to watch was going to be Stephen Curry vs. Kobe Bryant, but those plans were derailed when it was announced that Bryant would miss six weeks with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. 

    Instead, we'll be taking a look at a battle between two extraordinary big men.

    Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond will go toe-to-toe on Saturday night in a must-see individual matchup that will pit one of the league's elite centers against a fast riser who's set to make a run at Howard's throne. 

    Howard's been particularly dynamite of late, and head coach Kevin McHale has taken notice, according to the Associated Press (via NBA.com): 

    He's just got a nice rhythm, McHale said of Howard. When he goes fast there is a reason to go fast. When he goes slow, he's setting guys up. Basketball is such a game of rhythm and he's in a nice flow right now.

    Dominating in December, Howard was averaging 19.8 points and 14.3 rebounds while shooting 60.9 percent from the field entering Friday night's contest with the Indiana Pacers, and he is looking mighty comfortable in ways he never did last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    And when he matches up against Drummond, there will be a serious battle on the boards.

    According to the NBA's SportVU tracking data, Howard and Drummond are neck-and-neck when it comes to the percentage of rebounds each grabs per chance, which measures the number of rebounds a player recovers compared to the number of rebounding chances they're presented with. Among players logging at least 33 minutes per game, Drummond (71.2 percent) and Howard (69.5 percent) rank sixth and eighth, respectively.  

    In addition, Drummond leads all players in contested rebounds per game (when an opponent is within 3.5 feet) with a mark of 5.9, while Howard sits at No. 5 overall, pulling down 4.5 contested boards a night. 

    We also shouldn't lose sight of what a sensational season Drummond is having. Entering Friday night, Drummond was averaging 13.3 points and 12.7 rebounds (5.2 on offensive glass), 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks while shooting 61.9 percent from the field. 

Who Has the Most on the Line?

3 of 6

    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    The Chicago Bulls need a win in the worst kind of way after consecutive losses to the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder sunk their record to a lowly 9-16.

    In total, the Bulls have lost four in a row, eight of their past 10 and 13 of their past 16. 

    And to add injury to insult, the Bulls have lost several key players over the past three days. 

    First, it was announced that Luol Deng will be out a few games due to a nagging Achilles injury and is now shooting for a return on Christmas Day at the earliest, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson

    Then to make matters worse, swingman Jimmy Butler was forced to leave Thursday's contest with a sprained ankle and left the arena on crutches, per Johnson

    Now the Bulls will be forced to square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers without two key perimeter cogs and point guard Kirk Hinrich, who continues to sit with back pain.

    For a team that's scoring a meager 90.1 points per game in December, the Bulls should have a tough time taking down a Cavaliers squad that's heating up and lost to the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers by a combined 10 points earlier this week after rattling off five wins in six games. 

    A platoon of D.J. Augustin and Marquis Teague has a very slim chance of slowing down Kyrie Irving, who entered Friday night averaging 22.1 points and 6.1 assists this month. 

Injury Report

4 of 6

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Here's a preview of some notable names who could miss Saturday's action due to injury. 

     

    Boston Celtics

    Rajon Rondo (Knee) 

    He's been cleared for full contact in practice, according to MassLive.com's Jay King, but isn't expected to return until January. 

     

    Charlotte Bobcats

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Hand)

    According to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will wear a cast on his fractured hand until Dec. 27, at which point he'll be re-evaluated. 

     

    Chicago Bulls

    Jimmy Butler (Ankle)

    Jimmy Butler suffered a sprained ankle on Thursday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder and was spotted leaving the arena on crutches. It'd be a surprise if he suited up against the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

     

    Luol Deng (Achilles)

    According to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, Luol Deng is shooting to come back on Christmas Day at the earliest due to a nagging Achilles injury. 

     

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    Dion Waiters (Wrist) 

    Dion Waiters missed Friday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks due to tendinitis, and his status for Saturday's contest against the Chicago Bulls is now up in the air. 

     

    Denver Nuggets

    Danilo Gallinari (Knee)

    Danilo Gallinari has started running, according to the Denver Post's Chris Dempsey, but it doesn't look like he'll be back on the court until the New Year as he continues to recover from ACL surgery. 

     

    Houston Rockets

    Jeremy Lin (Back) 

    Jeremy Lin continues to deal with a nagging back injury but could return this weekend, according to NBA.com's Jason Friedman. He returned to practice on Thursday, per Friedman. If he can't go, Aaron Brooks will continue to see extended minutes as Patrick Beverley's backup.  

     

    Los Angeles Clippers

    J.J. Redick (Hand) 

    The Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard won't return to the starting lineup until January as he continues to recover from a fractured hand and a torn ligament in his right elbow.

     

    Los Angeles Lakers

    Jordan Farmar (Hamstring)

    The Lakers point guard will be sidelined for at least another week, according to the team, as he continues to recover from a hamstring tear. 

     

    Kobe Bryant (Knee)

    The Lakers recently announced that Kobe Bryant is expected to miss six weeks with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. 

     

    Steve Blake (Elbow)

    Steve Blake will be sidelined for a minimum of six weeks after suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. 

     

    Steve Nash (Back, Hamstring)  

    At this point it seems clear that it's going to be a matter of weeks and not days before Steve Nash finally makes a return to the floor due to nerve-root irritation that's caused him continual back and hamstring pain. 

     

    Memphis Grizzlies

    Marc Gasol (Knee)

    The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is off of crutches, but he is still likely a ways away from returning after suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain in late November. 

     

    Milwaukee Bucks

    Larry Sanders (Thumb) 

    The shot-blocking maven is still without a timetable to return, but he has been cleared for basketball activities and is close to returning to practice, according to Fox Sports Wisconsin's Andrew Gruman

     

    New York Knicks

    Amar'e Stoudemire (Knee)

    Although he was originally supposed to miss extended action with swelling in his knee, Amar'e Stoudemire has said that he will play on Saturday, according to Newsday's Al Iannazzone. 

     

    Pablo Prigioni (Toe) 

    New York's backup point guard is expected to miss approximately two weeks with a hairline fracture of his right great toe.

     

    Raymond Felton (Hamstring) 

    Raymond Felton continues to be nagged by a strained left hamstring that he suffered back on Dec. 11. He was originally projected to miss two to three weeks with the ailment. 

     

    San Antonio Spurs

    Tony Parker (Shin) 

    Tony Parker has missed the San Antonio Spurs' past two games with a bruised left shin. He's questionable for Saturday's showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

     

    All injury information courtesy of CBS Sports unless noted otherwise. 

Pop-In Potential: Dallas Mavericks vs. Phoenix Suns

5 of 6

    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    With all due respect to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns have emerged as the biggest surprise of this NBA season, turning into League Pass gold in the process. 

    Led by the dynamic backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, Phoenix currently ranks No. 6 overall in offensive rating and is looking like a legitimate threat to capture one of the Western Conference's final playoff spots along with Saturday's opponent, the Dallas Mavericks. 

    The Mavs will also need to be wary of a relatively hot Suns team, one that ripped off five straight wins prior to falling to the San Antonio Spurs by seven points on Wednesday. 

    During that five-game stretch, the Suns defeated stout Western Conference foes such as the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors and also knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and Sacramento Kings. 

    With a balanced and high-powered offense that currently boasts three shooters (P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Marcus Morris) who are converting on better than 40 percent of their three-point attempts, the Mavs' 21st-ranked scoring defense should be wary of a showdown with the upstart Suns. 

    However, Dallas will counter the Suns' explosive attack with an offense that's generating the league's ninth-most points per 100 possessions behind the production of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. 

    And the real story here has been the play of Nowitzki. 

    While LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry bask in the national spotlight, Nowitzki has gone about his business, posting shooting splits of .495/.419/.927. In his 16th season, Nowitzki is currently recording the third-best field-goal percentage, second-best three-point field-goal percentage and best free-throw percentage of his career. That's simply unheard of. 

Fantasy Stock Watch

6 of 6

    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    With 24 teams in action on Saturday, it's time to examine two studs and a sleeper who should be plugged into fantasy lineups as the week nears a close. 

     

    The Big Guns 

    Damian Lillard 

    The Portland Trail Blazers point guard has been scorching hot lately, posting point totals of 23, 36 and 36 over his past three games.

    In addition, Damian Lillard is shooting 51 percent from the field in his past two games, which is more than 10 points above his season average.

    For fantasy purposes, though, Lillard has also been posting some very complete lines. He dropped 10 dimes and pulled down eight rebounds against the Cleveland Cavaliers and followed that up by grabbing six rebounds, dishing out six assists and ripping three steals in Wednesday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    And according to mySynergySports (subscription required), Lillard currently ranks No. 5 overall in isolation scoring, posting 1.09 points per possession in such situations. He also leads the league in effective field-goal percentage (49.1) on pull-up jumpers among players who attempt a minimum of five per game, according to NBA.com's stats database

    However, while Lillard's play of late has turned heads, B/R's Zach Buckley is preaching patience when it comes to labeling the point guard "elite": 

    Those feast-or-famine box scores have made his stat line tough to interpret. He's an elite three-point artist in every sense of the term (42.2 percent, 24th among players with at least 50 attempts) but a middling contributor inside the arc (39.9 percent).

    He has too much explosiveness, too many ball-handling tricks and too soft a shooting stroke to struggle off the dribble the way he does. He's made 201 drives to the basket, but finished only 31.1 percent of those shots, via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. For comparison, that's less than half the success Jeremy Lin has found off the bounce (64.2).

    While a matchup with Jrue Holiday may very well cause Lillard some problems, the New Orleans Pelicans are currently allowing the league's fifth-most points per 100 possessions, which means there will be plenty of opportunities to gash their defense come Saturday night. 

     

    Anthony Davis

    Fantasy owners of Anthony Davis were pleasantly surprised on Wednesday night when news broke that the 20-year-old was returning from a fractured hand earlier than expected.

    And per usual, Davis didn't disappoint, totaling 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals in 32 minutes off the bench against the Los Angeles Clippers.

    With Davis set to return to the Pelicans' starting lineup, owners are simply elated that they're getting a first-round talent who's lived up to prime-time billing back in their lineups. 

    On the season, Davis is averaging a staggering 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, league-leading 3.4 blocks and 1.7 steals a game all while shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 82.7 percent from the free-throw line. 

    LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers will be a stout test for Davis and the Pelicans, but he should be able to take advantage of a defense that's allowing opponents to score 107.1 points per 100 possessions (No. 22 overall).  

     

    The Sleeper

    P.J. Tucker

    I mentioned a key perimeter trio that's helped fuel the Phoenix Suns' electric start earlier, so it's only right to elaborate on one of the key members of Jeff Hornacek's offense.

    P.J. Tucker, who's currently owned in a shade under three percent of ESPN leagues, is putting together the finest season season of his career, averaging 9.1 points while shooting 47.5 percent from three. 

    Tucker's also flourishing to the tune of a career-high 5.5 rebounds per game, and he has pulled down an average of 7.3 boards during the month of December.

    Factor in his respectable mark of 1.4 steals per game, and Tucker is a nice sleeper with explosive three-point potential whom fantasy owners should consider as we get set to enter the New Year.