Thunder vs. Bucks Preview | Bucks limp home to face Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

The Bucks spent their week battered and bruised--and beaten three times on their road trip that sent them through Miami, Orlando and Indiana. Their reward: a return trip home to face arguably the league's most talented team.

2013/2014 NBA Season
Okc
(5-3, 2-3 road)
vs.
Mil_medium
(2-6, 1-2 home)
November 16, 2013
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:30 CT
FS Wisconsin  | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Nate Wolters
Thabo Sefalosha SG O.J. Mayo
Kevin Durant SF Khris Middleton
Serge Ibaka PF Ekpe Udoh
Kendrick Perkins C Zaza Pachulia
2013/14 Advanced Stats
93.4 (9th) Pace 92.3 (24th)
112.5 (1st) ORtg 99.3 (26th)
102.5 (4th) DRtg 107.9 (28th)

On the ThunderWelcome To Loud CityDaily ThunderThunderous Intentions

The return of Russ. Russell Westbrook didn't miss a single regular season game in his first five seasons, but seemed destined to miss the first month of the season after a longer-than-expected recovery period from the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs last spring. Instead, he returned weeks early and missed just two games, reiterating what we've always known: he's weird, he's fantastic, and he's as tough as they come.

He's also not surprisingly still working his way back into form, as most of his numbers are a bit off what we've come to expect of him. But not a whole lot--he's still racking up 7.5 free throw attempts per contest and hitting a career-best 36.4% from deep on four attempts per contest while scoring 21.0 ppg and adding 5.0 apg and 2.0 spg in 33 mpg. It's been a similar story for the Thunder in general, as they've been off last year's efficiency marks on both ends (10th offensively, 15th defensively after ranking 1st/4th last year). They barely beat the Jazz on opening night and slumped to a 19-point loss in Minnesota in game two, before running off four straight wins after Westbrook returned.

They roll into Milwaukee as losers of two straight, but they played well enough to win a pair of tough road games against the Clippers (recap) and Warriors (recap), with the latter loss coming courtesy of an Andre Iguodala buzzer-beater.

Roll call! OK, so who on this roster is actually available to play NBA basketball? Not Larry Sanders (thumb) or Carlos Delfino (do we even need to talk about him anymore?). Brandon Knight (hamstring), Ersan Ilyasova (ankle), and Caron Butler (shoulder)...probably not? We'll know more on them as game-time approaches. The positive health news from from last night's destruction in Indiana was the return of Zaza Pachulia and Luke Ridnour, marking just the third time all season the Bucks have had two point guards for most of the game (yay!). Meanwhile, the only guy who's a question mark for the Thunder? Much-maligned/rapidly decomposing center Kendrick Perkins.

So the Bucks' backcourt seems a no-brainer (Wolters and Mayo), Middleton justifiably starts at SF, and the bigs are...Udoh and Pachulia? Plenty of people have asked why John Henson isn't part of the group, but I'm not as worried about that so long as he's playing around 30 mpg. If the past week is any indication, he seems to have inherited Mike Dunleavy's role as the guy the coaches prefer to bring off the bench no matter what, with Udoh the obvious beneficiary in terms of the starting lineup. The key to me is keeping at least one shot-blocker in the starting five (Udoh or Henson) while simultaneously making sure Henson gets his minutes, which so far he has (27 mpg on the season).

Kevin vs. The Kids. Butler (sprained shoulder) is presumably out until at least next week, which means Middleton will have the pleasure of defending his third superstar of the week. Good luck Khris!

Fortunately, Middleton has been mostly impressive on the defensive end so far. While no one on the Bucks had much luck defending LeBron James (33 points in three quarters) on Tuesday, Middleton was able to limit Paul George to mostly shooting long jumpers last night in Indiana (and gave him a shove in the back at one point as well). Of course, George still made most of those tough shots on his way to 22 points on 18 shots, but Middleton to date has generally looked the part of a quality defender. He moves his feet and isn't afraid to mix it up, which is why Larry Drew has been willing to throw him out there as a small-ball four as well. I'm less a fan of the latter strategy, but as the Bucks get some of their bigs healthy--particularly Ilyasova--that figures to become less necessary. Then there's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who I'm sure most of us would see more of while Butler is out. He only saw a first half cameo and some late garbage time in Indiana, so it's tough to tell what Larry Drew is going to do with him on a nightly basis. He's already been matched at times with guys like LeBron and George, so it's not like Drew is trying to hide him completely. I'm more frustrated by Drew's insistence on frequently matching him against smaller, quicker shooting guards. The upside is that he's not going to get beat up physically by those guys, but thus far we've seen guys like Lance Stephenson and even Courtney Lee use their quickness and Giannis' inability to get through screens against him.

As for Durant...well, he's still incredible. While his shot has been slightly off so far (.460/.333 so far vs. .514/.410 last year), he's getting to the line at an utterly obscene rate (11.9 fta) and remains virtually automatic when he gets there (88.6%), which is why his true shooting percentage remains an absurd 63.2%. Oh, and did we mention he's also nabbing 7.1 boards and a career-high 5.5 assists per game?  Because he is. The only downside has been an ugly 4.4 turnovers per contest, but I think Thunder fans can live with it.

Young Thunder. Last year's James Harden trade will be second-guessed so long as the Thunder don't win an NBA title, but more than anything it underscored how star-laden teams like OKC need cheap young guys in order to avoid the luxury tax. While Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will earn a combined $45 million this season, the remaining 11 guys on the roster account for just $25 million. Throw out Perkins' ugly $8 million deal and you have 10 guys making a mere $17 million.

With Kevin Martin gone, the Thunder now have just Jeremy Lamb and rookie Steven Adams to show for the Harden deal, and along with Perry Jones and Reggie Jackson they give Sam Presti's team four rookies or sophomores in the nightly rotation. They're cheap and each under contract through at least 2016, and they'll be needed to make real contributions if the Thunder are going to contend for a championship. The 20-year-old Adams has been the most pleasant surprise thus far (5.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.1 blocks, 16.4 PER in 20 mpg) adding size, mobility and toughness to a frontline that doesn't need much scoring help with Durant and Ibaka around.

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