NBA: Toronto Raptors at Oklahoma City Thunder Preview & Picks

Russell WestbrookAfter a tough loss to the Chicago Bulls, the (34-28) Oklahoma City Thunder will look to rebound in a big way against the (38-24) Toronto Raptors today (7.05pm EST, Sunday). For the currently eighth-seeded Thunder, a win would go a long way toward locking up that final playoff spot for the Western Conference.

It wasn’t more than two weeks ago, right after the All Star break, that the Toronto Raptors were the second best team in the East and within striking distance of the Atlanta Hawks for that top spot. Now, the Raptors find themselves barely holding on to the third seed with the possibility to fall even farther and it begs the question:

Just what happened to the Toronto Raptors? As the early season progressed, it became obvious that Toronto’s incredible start (13 wins in their first 15 games) was not a fluke. The rise to the top of the Eastern Conference coincided with the rise of eighth year veteran point guard, Kyle Lowry (18 PPG, 7 APG, 4 RPG), who was finally developing into the player many believed he could be. Additionally, the Raptors scoring output had jumped from the previous year as the team now averaged over 100 points a game, a mark tough for anyone to beat consistently.

And so it was, the 13-2 record in the first 15. The Raptors were surging forward, looking to reach the playoffs for just the second time in the last seven seasons. As it stood at the break, not only would they make the postseason, but they would do so as the likely second seed.

But as the break ended and the fanfare from Lowry’s first ever All-Star appearance faded, so too did the Raptors. After defeating the top ranked Hawks for the third time this season, Toronto slumped hard. The Raptors lost each of their next five games before finally defeating the 14-win Philadelphia 76ers. They then lost the next two, leaving their post All-Star record as an atrocious 2-7. Those aren’t exactly playoff worthy numbers.

The Raptors are the exact opposite of hot right now and that’s no good because they need a win to avoid slipping even more in the standings. Unfortunately however, OKC is very hot and they have their own playoff hopes they are desperately trying to keep alive.

Russell Westbrook: “What goes up, must come down & 43% of the time go into the net.”

Okay, so maybe that is a slight variation of an Isaac Newton and not Russell Westbrook (pictured) quote, but there really is no better way to describe the game of the Thunder’s young star and MVP candidate. He’s throwing up shots at an accelerated rate, topping 40 points in each of his last three games. And while in theory, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing, one just has to look at Westbrook’s below average shooting percentage to realize that when the 26-year-old puts up shots, it is not always in the best interest of his team.

Ordinarily, Westbrook’s numbers (27 PPG, 8 APG, 7 RPG) would be nothing to sneeze at. But if it told you he has to attempt an average of 21 field goals a game, while making just nine, those might have you raising a brow.

The truth is Westbrook is no Kevin Durant (25 PPG, 4 APG, 6 RPG). He may have the ability to score  just like his other star teammate but it takes him on average four extra shots per game to equate what amounts to just two points in difference between the two. Four shots may not sound like a lot but it is, especially when for Westbrook, there’s a less than 50-50 chance those shots go in.

When Westbrook attempts 25+ shots a game, the Thunder are just 6-10. They aren’t much better when Durant attempts over 20 either (5-4). Both men are superstars but they prove it is true that there really is only so much basketball to go around.

The Thunder, who are to be without Durant for at least another week, likely more, have seen the role of Westbrook increase to near-detrimental levels. The point guard has hoisted over 30 shots in each of his last four games and only one, again against the lowly Sixers, has amounted in an OKC win. This is in large part because Westbrook’s shooting percentage in that span is just 41%, well below what you would expect out of an MVP candidate.

So for the Thunder, as crazy as it might sound, the key to keeping their hopes of a sixth consecutive playoff berth alive rest in limiting Westbrook’s shot attempts.

Toronto Raptors at Oklahoma City Thunder Preview Betting Picks

The Raptors are the fourth worst rebounding team in the league and the Thunder, led by Enes Kanter (13 PPG, 8.9 RPG) and Serge Ibaka (14 PPG, 7.9 RPG) are the best. Expect the Thunder to win the battle of the boards like they have all season.

The Thunder are not as good offensively as the Raptors but they’ll have the better matchup today. The Raptors allow the ninth most points per game in the league but that number has actually been worse during the slump. Toronto’s defense has shut down, allowing over 108 points and close to 49% field goal percentage in each of the last five. That sets up as a pretty decent matchup for the Thunder, even without Durant. The Thunder are at home where they are 20-8 this season.

If you haven’t guessed it, that last point should be the giveaway. I’m taking the Thunder to get the win. Even though they have struggled recently, Toronto has too. And while OKC’s biggest problem is too many shots for Westbrook, Toronto’s has been fundamentally a team effort, which is much tougher to fix. The Thunder is in a good position to get back to their winning ways and I believe they can cover the sportbooks’ seven-point spread.

  • Bet on Oklahoma City Thunder -7pts @ best betting odds of -110 with BetOnline or 5Dimes.