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Last Updated 12.5.2017
Shaky OKC start adds to Northwest intrigue

Head coach Gregg Popovich rested nearly all of the Spurs’ top players on Sunday and still nearly beat Oklahoma City, which suffered through a sloppy game from Russell Westbrook and a foul-riddled off night from Paul George.

At home, in front of a crowd that has grown nervous instead of confident given what’s transpired over the first few weeks, the Thunder held on to a three-point win in a game where they were favored by 8 and up by as much as 14 in the second half.

Per the Westgate, they remain at 12/1 to win the Western Conference despite opening the week as the Northwest Division’s last-place team.

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 six weeks, but certainly have concerns their lack of chemistry is about moving parts that are destined to forever not mesh.

Westbrook is having issues 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.

George isn’t shooting it well, currently at 41 percent, and has wild scoring swings of late that have seen him score 2 and 8 points in separate games this week, but also dropped 36 on Minnesota. Anthony has only scored more than 20 points once in the last four games.

Rest of Northwest to make Thunder road bumpy

Since the Thunder dominated Golden State in the first meeting of the season on Nov. 22, there’s obviously something to work with there. Is Billy Donovan the right guy to wave the right wand and help it all come together? That might be something to consider if Oklahoma City continues to struggle this month.

After facing the Jazz on Tuesday, OKC hits the road for five of six, opening in Brooklyn before heading down to Memphis. The Thunder than return home to face the Hornets before going to Indiana, Philadelphia and New York. ‘Melo will be making his first appearances in NYC over the next 12 days and is averaging 18.7 points, his lowest output since his rookie year. It will be interesting to see how the Thunder makes it through this stretch. If they flourish, things could take off.

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. Only Golden State (1/4), Houston (9/2) and San Antonio (7/1) have better odds than the Thunder to win the West since the presumption that they’ll soon take off remains in place for many.

Their lack of cohesion does make the long regular season far more interesting since no one has taken full advantage to build much of a lead in the Northwest. The four teams ahead of the Thunder were separated by just a half-game on Nov. 5, all less than three games up on OKC.

Those 12-1 odds the Thunder are fetching in the West are far superior to division-leading Minnesota (40/1), Denver (100/1) and Portland (100/1) despite the fact OKC became the last one to pick up its 10th victory. Utah (150/1), just a half-game behind the division leaders entering the showdown with the Thunder, looks far more formidable than most anticipated.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert recovered faster than expected from a bone bruise in his leg that was originally supposed to sideline him until mid-month. Instead, he returned on Monday night and grabbed 10 rebounds in 21 minutes in a 116-69 rout of Washington. Despite missing the presence of the top defensive center in the game, Utah went 7-4 in the 11 games he missed, winning and covering five in succession.

Utah will be able to put his 7-foot-9 wingspan to use entering a critical stretch that will help determine whether a franchise 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 its chances.

The Jazz have also gotten backup point guard Raul Neto back from a hamstring injury and will soon get wing Rodney Hood back from an ankle sprain. Utah hosts Houston in the second half of a nationally-televised TNT doubleheader on Thursday, so they’ll be under the microscope. With shooting guard Alec Burks pouring in 28 points off the bench, Utah is flexing depth most slept on 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.

Former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Favors has averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds since moving into Gobert’s spot at center, while rookie Donovan Mitchell has averaged 25 points per game over his last five. The Jazz are certainly serving notice that they’re going to be a problem. I’d take advantage of their futures now before the odds become less lucrative.

The Thunder figure to have company at the top in the Northwest for most of the season given the multitude of candidates that have emerged.

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.

Denver is the team that may end up falling into the background before the month is up since it 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. Both missed Monday’s 122-105 loss in Dallas, opening a six-game road trip that couldn’t come at a worse time given their ailments since includes games against New Orleans, Detroit and Boston, all teams with elite big men.

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. The Nuggets have feasted on the comforts of home, posting a 10-3 mark at Pepsi Center, but is just 3-8 on the road, potentially making them a team to fade relentlessly as they endure a difficult stretch.

They’ll visit the Pelicans, Pacers, Pistons, Celtics, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Warriors and Timberwolves over the next three weeks. All those teams will be favored, so unless the Nuggets get healthy or find a way to pull off some upsets, they could be in a world of trouble before 2018 even arrives.

If nothing else, that means Oklahoma City isn’t likely to be a last-place team too much longer.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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