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Thunder vs Mavericks Preview: Three things to watch in the first post trade deadline game

Retooled Mavericks Seek to Push Winning Streak

Dallas Mavericks v New York Knicks Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder (35-16, 15-10 away) are set to play a matinee with the Dallas Mavericks (29-23, 14-13 home) on Saturday afternoon. Each team boasts a member of the Western Conference All-Star backcourt in the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic and the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Both teams have their sights set on a strong finish to the season and have added reason for optimism after completing trade deadline deals to bolster each roster. While new Thunder forward Gordon Hayward will not play in this one, there is a chance new Maverick additions PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford will suit up and see action. Can the Mavericks push their win streak to four games or will the Thunder assert their will?

Avenging a Tough Home Loss

On December 2nd, the Mavericks outscored the Thunder 36-19 in a game that included a staggering 30-0 run by Dallas. The 126-120 loss lingered in the air for quite a while. Luka Doncic poured in 36 points, 18 assists, and 15 boards in a stinging loss. It was games like this from Grant Williams that portended his quick exit from Dallas - 5 points, 1-6 FG, 0-4 3P.

Saturday afternoon represents a chance for Dallas to avenge this tough home loss and snag a fourth win in a row. The Mavericks will be without a key contributor from that narrowly landed comeback - Derrick Lively had 20 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 blocks in that game. The good news is frontcourt help has arrived in Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington - can they help in this one? Can Tim Hardaway and Kyrie Irving (who both missed out on December 2nd) be difference makers?

The Startling Ascendency of the Thunder

NBA rebuilds are meant to have an off-ramp. A descent, a bottoming out, and - hopefully - a steady ascendance to relevance and eventually contention. Many analysts believed this year would see the Thunder rise into fighting for a play-in tournament position. Instead, this young team has boasted one of the best records in the league and is riding towards home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series.

The Thunder currently sit in the top 5 in offensive and defensive ratings. They have an elite rim protector in Chet Holmgren (2.6 blocks per game) as well as capable perimeter defenders in stalwart Luguentz Dort, solid wing Jalen Williams, and rookie Cason Wallace. All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in steals with 2.2 per game. SGA, Williams and now Gordon Hayward represent three reliable scoring options you can close games with alongside Holmgren and another defender.

The Thunder rebuilt with patience, solid drafts, and a future-leaning trade of Paul George to acquire their franchise player. They also are sitting on a mountain of draft picks. Get used to the Thunder being more than relevant for many years to come.

Shaq has it twisted

During his playing career, Shaquille O’Neal was a menace for the Mavericks. Every time Dallas played the Lakers during all those many years, it was generally a matter of scoring from the outside at a rate high enough to counteract the drubbing Shaq put on any and all Maverick frontcourt players. In his retirement, it has become clear through watching his interactions as a commentator, entrepreneur, and philanthropist that O’Neal is a genuinely affable and kind soul.

When it comes to his basketball takes, they are, at times, half-baked. Recently on TNT, he declared his preference for SGA over Luka Doncic. I was shocked but not surprised.

While Gilgeous-Alexander deserves his place in the starting backcourt for the West and is one of the best players in the league, to place him above Luka Doncic is an absurdity. The court vision, the playmaking, the clutch scoring, and the generational greatness of Doncic seem to be lost on O’Neal in favor of the “great story” that SGA admittedly represents. Luka Doncic averages more points, rebounds, and assists than SGA. He is also slightly younger.

If you polled NBA GMs in a secret ballot who they would rather start a franchise right now, it would undoubtedly be Luka Doncic in a unanimous (or very close to it) result. Lucky for us, we will get to see these two face off in Maverick and Thunder uniforms today - and hopefully for years to come.

Where to watch

You can catch the Thunder and Mavs on NBA TV Saturday at 2 PM