The Oklahoma City Thunder have arrived well ahead of schedule. For a team pundits expected to win around 20 or so games, the Thunder are one step closer to making the playoffs in surprise fashion after they managed to defeat the ninth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans in the 9/10 matchup of the 2023 NBA Play-In tournament.
Sure, getting this far is already an achievement in and of itself for the youngest team in the NBA. But there’s no way this nascent Thunder squad will find any satisfaction in coming close yet remaining far. They will want to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, and they definitely can, especially if the Timberwolves team that shows up is the one that played during their fourth quarter and overtime meltdown against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 7/8 game.
Despite the Timberwolves’ awful collapse, they will still have plenty of weapons in their disposal to put a screeching halt on the Thunder’s feel-good bid to make the playoffs. It’s nearly impossible that Anthony Edwards goes 3/17 from the field once again, while Karl-Anthony Towns showed that he’s still one of the most gifted big men on the offensive end of the floor.
Thus, the Thunder cannot take anything for granted, and they will need all of their weapons, besides their ascendant backcourt of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, to show up in a huge way, similar to how most of the OKC rotation players played their roles to a T against the Pelicans.
Here is the Thunder’s biggest X-factor in yet another win or go home matchup in the 2023 NBA Play-in tournament, this time against the Timberwolves.
Thunder’s biggest X-factor vs. Timberwolves: Jaylin Williams
Against the Pelicans, it was Luguentz Dort who stood as OKC’s biggest wildcard player. While Dort is a guarantee to have a positive impact on the game defensively, it’s unclear which version of the 6’3 lockdown wing would show up on offense. Thankfully for OKC, Dort had his best-scoring game of the season, as he led the way for the Thunder offensively while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander struggled with shooting the ball in the first half of their 123-118 win.
Of course, against the Timberwolves, Dort will play a huge part once more. He will have the task of trying to make Anthony Edwards’ relive his play-in nightmare against the Lakers. But OKC has multiple bodies to throw at Edwards. They also have Jalen Williams to answer the call if necessary.
Meanwhile, OKC has a dearth of frontcourt options, especially after dealing away Mike Muscala at the trade deadline. Similar to the Jonas Valanciunas matchup, the Thunder may find it difficult to contain a versatile scoring big man on offense, especially when Karl-Anthony Towns has been shooting the rock as well he has in recent games. In fact, had KAT not gone into foul trouble this past Tuesday, the Timberwolves’ offense may not have sputtered to the degree it did.
Thus, Jaylin Williams, the rookie center out of Arkansas, will have to be on point like he was against the Pelicans. Only 20 years old, Williams showed his vast array of skills, even dropping a career-best eight dimes against the Pelicans. Williams even made the Pelicans think twice about playing Valanciunas, a man who ended the night with 18 rebounds (six offensive), after he nailed a crucial triple in the fourth quarter that helped stop the Thunder’s bleeding.
In the end, Williams’ presence as a floor spacer and as an underrated playmaking threat won out, as Valanciunas ended up sitting some of the most crucial minutes of the contest.
The Thunder will now be searching for similar contributions from the 6’10 center against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. While Williams won’t be able to play Towns off the floor (Towns, at the very least, is a more mobile big man in a blitzing scheme), his standing as the only true center on the roster means that he will need to stay on the floor — especially if Rudy Gobert suits up in a do-or-die contest — to prevent OKC from being on the receiving end of an all-out demolition from the Timberwolves on the interior.
If ever Jaylin Williams finds himself in foul trouble, the Thunder will have to rely on Dario Saric against a potential twin-tower look from the Timberwolves, which isn’t exactly the most enticing scenario.
Both Josh Giddey and Luguentz Dort have already turned in arguably their best performances of the season, and now, OKC will need to rely on yet another youngster to perform at a level befitting of someone more experienced. But given the trajectory of the development of the Thunder youngsters, Williams could be their next player to break out under the bright lights of the postseason.
(The play-in may not be the playoffs, but it still occurs following the regular season so technically it is part of the postseason.)
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