Gregg Popovich rested most of the Spurs’ top players on Sunday and still nearly beat Oklahoma City, which suffered through a sloppy game from Russell Westbrook plus a foul-riddled off night from Paul George and stumbled to a three-point win.
Per the Westgate, the Thunder remain at 12/1 to win the Western Conference despite opening the week as the Northwest Division’s last-place team. That’s better odds than the division-leading Nuggets (100/1) and Timberwolves (40/1), Portland (100/1) and Utah (150/1), despite the fact OKC became the last one to pick up its 10th victory. Only Golden State (1/4), Houston (9/2) and San Antonio (7/1) have better odds than the Thunder since the presumption that they’ll soon take off remains in place for many.
Coming into the regular season, I believed that the Thunder stood as the biggest threat to the Warriors making a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. I’m not ready to give up on it after a month, but certainly have concerns about their lack of chemistry early on. Westbrook is having major issue getting into his preferred in-game rhythm while being cognizant of the fact George and Carmelo Anthony need the ball to get going. He’s had issues with turnovers and has looked rushed, but with so much time still remaining – nearly three-quarters of the season – reps over time can alleviate the concerns.
The Thunder opened the season at 17/2 to win the West and were an overwhelming 1/2 favorite to take the Northwest Division, so a slow start has only slightly tempered expectations.
Their lack of cohesion does make things far more interesting in that no one has taken full advantage to build a lead, as the four teams ahead of the Thunder were separated by just a game-and-a-half entering the week.
Minnesota opened as the likeliest alternative to OKC as division champ, coming in 3/1. They’ve had their own issues with getting key new cogs Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford up to speed as they build around young cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but have avoided a losing streak longer than two games and face a manageable schedule over the next few weeks, playing five straight in Minneapolis from Dec. 10-16. Of the teams coming into town, only the 76ers and Blazers have winning records.
Portland has had the most continuity with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum leading the charge. It held the Northwest lead as November came to an end but suffered home setbacks to the Bucks and Pelicans to fall out of first. Although young forward Noah Vonleh has stepped his game up as a prolific rebounder, getting Al-Farouq Aminu should upgrade depth in the frontcourt and elevate the defense. He’d missed some time with an ankle injury but should have an impact going forward.
Utah center Rudy Gobert has recovered faster than expected from a bone bruise in his leg that was originally supposed to sideline him until mid-month. Instead, he practiced for the first time on Sunday and is going to participate in games this week.
Despite missing the presence of the top defensive center in the game, Utah went 7-4 in the 11 games he missed entering Monday’s home date with Washington, winning and covering five in succession. Still, it’s not like they can’t use his 7-foot-9 wingspan entering a critical stretch that will determine whether a team that was written off after losing Gordon Hayward to Boston via free agency can be a factor all season. So far, you have to like their chance.
In addition to Gobert going down, the Jazz dealt with long-term injuries to Joe Johnson and Dante Exum and most recently have seen Rodney Hood (ankle) and Raul Neto (hamstring) miss time, which is why they were favored only once during their current winning streak. Utah will play at the Thunder this week and hosts Houston in the second half of a nationally-televised doubleheader on Thursday, so they’ll be under the microscope.
Hood is presumably returning soon too, perhaps as soon as Monday night, so the hope is that the Jazz will have their depth restored prior to leaving for a season-long six-game road trip that won’t see them play another home game for two weeks after they host the Rockets. With Derrick Favors imposing his will with more opportunities in the post and rookie Donovan Mitchell scoring 41 points to open December with a 114-108 win over New Orleans, the Jazz are seeing contributors pop up who will have to remain in major roles even with Gobert and Hood returning.
Favors has averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds since moving into Gobert’s spot at center, while Mitchell has averaged over 26 points per game over the last four games. Alec Burks added 24 points getting some of Hood’s minutes against the Pelicans, so the Jazz are certainly serving notice that they’ve got a lot of quality depth and will be more of a threat than most expected would be.
Denver is the team that may end up bringing up the rear when all is said and done since they can’t stay healthy. The Nuggets have been extremely unlucky, losing Paul Millsap for weeks due to a wrist injury and seeing star center Nikola Jokic turn an ankle last week.
Jokic is a likely All-Star and the franchise’s key piece, so if the injury lingers, it could be a deal-breaker to Denver’s chances. Forward Wilson Chandler has also looked like a shell of himself due to a back issue. All these ailments couldn’t come at a worse time for the Nuggets since they’re forced to leave the comforts of home for a six-game road trip that includes games against New Orleans, Detroit and Boston, all teams with elite big men.
The team has gone 10-3 at home and is just 3-7 away from Denver, potentially making them a team to fade relentlessly as they endure a difficult stretch.