Practice Roundup – Jan. 8, 2017

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

For the first time all season, the Thunder had all 15 men on its roster healthy in Saturday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets. At long last, after an arduous, trying and even at times lonely offseason, preseason and first two months of the regular season, Cameron Payne returned to action.

It was just his first foray back into NBA action after recovering from a broken foot, but Payne was strong, scoring eight points, grabbing two rebounds and dishing out an assist in 13 minutes. From the return of his pre-game dance ritual with Russell Westbrook to the way his teammates burst off the bench when he nailed his first three, Payne’s exuberance was palpable once again.

“It was good just to see him out there,” center Steven Adams said. “What was good was his chemistry straight away. He was running the plays well, the pace of the game was really good. Obviously he’ll get better with it, it’s his first game back. It was a great first game for him, coming back, seeing the boys, it cheered everyone up.”

Moving forward, the Thunder knows that Payne is a valuable, talented option for Head Coach Billy Donovan to utilize, even with Russell Westbrook starting at point guard and reserve point guard Semaj Christon available to continue his role as a steady backup who can defend at a high level and attack the paint. Just like the Thunder utilizes Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together in the frontcourt, don’t be surprised to see Payne playing alongside some of the Thunder’s other perimeter playmakers.

Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan

“You have potentially three players who can play in pick and roll, three players who can play off the dribble,” Donovan explained. “You have three-point shooting, you have different guys who can generate penetration from multiple areas of the floor. In order to be a good offensive team you have to generate some form of penetration.”

“If the ball is coming out of pick and rolls or coming out of the low post and someone is flying out at a shooter, we have the ability to put the ball on the floor and generate more offense and more paint touches,” Donovan added.

- Although the Thunder didn’t play up to its normal defensive standard in the second quarter of the win against Denver, it certainly held up in the second half when it forced the Nuggets into 31.1 percent shooting. Much of that had to do with preventing dribble penetration and ensuring that guards like Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson couldn’t attack the paint and dish to shooters. The team has been hard at work in practice on days like today to make sure that guards and forwards are communicating correctly and that the defense is well-rehearsed.

  • “The only way to fix that is staying disciplined and communicating loud and early,” Adams said. “You just break it down. (Donovan) just puts us into random basketball.” 

- On Saturday against the Nuggets Adams helped show off why the Thunder’s strength is in its frontcourt, and with him in particular, how lethal a combination of athleticism, size and touch can be. In the Thunder’s crucial 15-2 run in the third quarter, Adams scored nine straight points that included a pair of transition post ups against a Denver defense that was yet to set up. Adams sprinted out ahead of his defender, posted up against the smaller Wilson Chandler and easily flipped in two layups. Adams’ ability to be a threat in transition is a huge asset to the team.

Thunder Talk: Steven Adams

  • “If I’m ahead and one on one with a dude, I get a deep seal,” Adams explained. “If Russell is ahead of me and he’s going downhill, I don’t want to do that. I just get out of the way.” 

- Domas Sabonis is a 20-year old rookie going up against grown men in the starting lineup each and every night, but against the Nuggets Sabonis was the one looking like the veteran. To start the game Sabonis was aggressive, physical and forceful in the paint. He repeatedly caught the ball on the left block, faced up and then buried his right shoulder and arm squarely into the chest of his defender Darrell Arthur to generate space for a lefty hook shot. Sabonis scored nine points in the opening quarter, and it’s clear his work with Enes Kanter and Adams is paying off.

  • “He’s a good kid, bro. He comes in and always wants to work hard. He’s a sponge and wants to learn as much as he can,” Adams said. “But it’s not like he’s a “Yes” man all the time. Usually as a rookie you have to say “Yes” all the time. But he questions a lot of different things to really get a good understanding, which is good because you know that he actually wants to learn.” 

- The catalyst for the Thunder big men generating offense from the low block has been the team’s point guard and floor general, Westbrook. For the 17th time this season Westbrook recorded a triple-double on Saturday while also registering his 21st game of at least 10 assists. Throughout the course of the game Westbrook operates almost like a pitcher, setting up his teammates at certain intervals based on what the defense is doing, then capitalizing to switch it up when teams adjust.

  • “He’s doing a really good job of being a leader. He gets everyone involved,” Adams said. “He’s so smart and savvy at reading the defense.”

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