April 28th, 2014
Trust, Confidence Late in Games

Late in Game 4, the Thunder displayed complete trust and confidence in one another, and executed on both ends to pick up a crucial win. What it did next was perhaps even more challenging. The team turned the page and moved on.

Even Reggie Jackson, who came through for the Thunder on both ends of the floor by defending the Memphis Grizzlies’ Mike Conley and taking over ballhandling duties to score a career-high 32 points, was ready to focus on Game 5 almost immediately. At the Thunder’s practice at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center on Monday, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club got right to work on the next challenge, a home tilt on Tuesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena with the series tied 2-2.

“We got back to the locker room, showered off and had to put it behind us,” Jackson said of Game 4. “We’re in a best of three game series now, playing a tough team.”

“We know we’re having a tough battle,” Jackson continued. “They believe that they should win. We believe that we should win. Both teams want to advance and it’s a do or die moment.”

Jackson was handed the reins of the offense in the fourth quarter and in overtime, using the All-Star power of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook off of the ball, creating even more space on the floor for attacking Memphis’ defense. As the series progresses, the Thunder’s ability to create problems for the Grizzlies from multiple positions on the floor will be integral to team success on offense, and Jackson is one of the major players involved in that effort.

The third-year point guard is also critical on the defensive end of the floor, where in the second half and in overtime, he was the primary defender on the Grizzlies’ point guards- Conley and Beno Udrih. On Monday, Jackson was quick to credit Thunder bigs like Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams for their work in helping defend the pick-and-roll, but understands that it will be up to him, Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher along the perimeter to prevent Memphis’ guards from getting into the lane.

“We’re asking ourselves to do a better job of getting over screens and getting back in front of the ball so they can stay connected with their man,” Jackson said. “We can’t let guys slip behind us or get easy driving lanes. We know we have one of the best shot blockers in the league, but we can’t put so much pressure on him or get him into foul trouble.”

In fact, a large portion of this series will come down to which team can pressure the other’s guards more effectively for longer stretches of the game. Recently, Brooks has gone to Sefolosha on Conley early in games in order to set the defensive tone, then followed up those looks with Westbrook, Jackson and Fisher to keep a fresh defender on the Grizzlies’ shifty point guard at all times.

By utilizing the strengths of all members of the backcourt, and trusting Sefolosha to set the example from the opening tip, Brooks has bred confidence in the team that it can collectively get the defensive job done.

“We put (Sefolosha) on Conley to start the game off with him getting a different look before we put Russell on him or our other guards,” Brooks said. “Thabo’s length can give problems. We want him to harass him in the backcourt a little bit. He’s done a good job of using his defensive toughness to impact the series.”

The trust and confidence the Thunder showed in one another was evident on the offensive end with the play of Jackson and on the defensive end by having Perkins and Ibaka to defend Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol one-on-one, allowing Thunder perimeter defenders to stay home on their men. Perhaps the biggest sign of the Thunder’s belief in itself late in games was its prowess at the free throw line.

From training camp until now, the Thunder has put in countless hours of work on free throws in practice, so it when it came time to knock down eight straight free throws to end Saturday’s Game 4, including six by Jackson, the Thunder had full faith that the shots would go down.

“I just go in thinking every shot I take, especially free throws, is going to go in,” Jackson said. “I feel like I put in the work and am blessed to be in those positions and be healthy. I just go in there and trust myself to make it.”

“Our guys have really locked into our practice habits of shooting free throws and it transfers over to games,” Brooks said. “They’re great free throw shooters because they work on it every day. They stay with the same routine.”