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Game #40: Thunder vs. Wolves Preview

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Shabazz Muhammad is getting buckets again, and it all started in the last meeting between these two teams.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Shabazz Muhammad has been providing the scoring spark off the bench for the Timberwolves for most of his career. His production has also been sporadic throughout the years.

There are games in which he has fired on all cylinders and been one of the key differences in a victory. There are also too many games he looks lost on both ends and is a big reason for defeat. Simply put, Muhammad has been largely inconsistent in his role throughout his career.

That has continued this season.

After struggling over the first two months, we’ve seen another turn over the past two weeks. Bazz Lightyear has given the Wolves and their fans an excellent Christmas present by elevating his role and doing so with consistency. His performance has helped Minnesota produce the eighth-best net rating (2.3) in the NBA over the past 15 games.

Muhammad has heated up in the heart of the icy Minnesota winter. Since Christmas Day at Oklahoma City (a span of nine games), he has scored double figures seven times and shot 50 percent from the field or better seven times.

Before his recent hot streak, he went nine straight games without reaching double figures. As you can see below, one of the biggest reasons for his better play of late is he’s hitting threes now.

Muhammad is up to a 39.6 percent from beyond the arc for the season, including 59.1 percent (13-for-22) since Christmas Day—a stark contrast from the 25.8 percent (8-for-31) clip he registered before Christmas.

Tonight, Bazz gets another chance to keep his hand hot against the team in which his recent stretch began. Muhammad tallied 15 points on 5-for-8 from the field in the last meeting Minnesota and Oklahoma City. Another efficient performance like that certainly wouldn’t hurt the Wolves’ chances at a third straight win.

Oklahoma City enters Target Center riding a three-games win streak and in a tie for fifth in the Western Conference at 24-16. Russell Westbrook continues to prove he is an immortal human being having already compiled 18 triple-doubles in 40 games this season.

His triple-double game averages are holding steady—31 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.5 assists in 34.7 minutes per game. His field goal percentages aren’t super impressive—42.7 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from beyond the arc. Regardless, OKC runs nearly half of its possessions through Westbrook, whether by shot, potential assist or turnover. His usage rate of 41.3 percent is the highest in the NBA by a wide margin.

There are places on the floor Westbrook struggles to make shots from with efficiency. Specifically, our old friend the long two-pointer has not been kind to Westbrook this season.

If the Wolves can force Westbrook into deeper looks, whether it be from inside the arc or outside the arc, it will only help their chances. The NBA’s leading scorer thrives when he can maneuver into the paint and create for either himself or others.

As a team, the Thunder’s 32.9 percent clip from beyond the arc is 29th in the NBA, only ahead of Chicago. Early-season acquisition Ersan Ilyasova was supposed to fix this fault, but has only mustered a 25 percent rate on four attempts per game. Meanwhile, widely-known sharpshooter Anthony Morrow has taken a tremendous step backward in the 2016-17 campaign, only hitting 29.3 percent of his three-point looks.

OKC might not be dominant from the perimeter, but they destroy opponents in the paint with regularity, ranking third in rebounds per game (45.8), second in rebound percentage (52.6) and second in points in the paint percentage (47.2). Steven Adams leads the Thunder’s charge in the paint, averaging 12.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

Enes Kanter acts as OKC’s x-factor off the bench—similar to what Muhammad does for the Wolves, only with more consistency. Kanter has recorded double-figures in 11 of his last 12 outings, including 20 points in five of those performances. He notched 20 point son 8-for-10 from the field against the Wolves on Christmas Day to help the Thunder pull away.

Between Adams and Kanter, Minnesota’s frontcourt will certainly have its hands full. If the Wolves expect to get a third straight win, the Thunder’s inside presence must be contained.

Expected Starting Lineups

Timberwolves

PG - Ricky Rubio

SG - Brandon Rush

SF - Andrew Wiggins

PF - Gorgui Dieng

C - Karl-Anthony Towns

Injuries: Zach LaVine is QUESTIONABLE (hip), Nikola Pekovic is OUT (achilles).

Thunder

PG - Russell Westbrook

SG - Victor Oladipo

SF - Andre Roberson

PF - Domantas Sabonis

C - Steven Adams

Injuries: NONE

Four Factors

As we always do in game previews, let’s take a look at how the Wolves and Thunder match up using the Four Factors. Reminder, the Four Factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TOV%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw rate (FTR).

Factor / Wolves / Thunder

eFG% / 50.6 / 51.1

TOV% / 15.3 / 14.6

ORB% / 28.0 / 26.1

FTR / .283 / .297

Minnesota has put together a string of solid defensive performances the past few weeks, posting a Top 10 defensive rating in its past 15 games. However, strong defense alone can’t contain OKC. The Wolves will have to win on the glass to calm the Thunder tonight, and that’s a tall task.

Prediction: Thunder 96, Wolves 92