It’s Playoff Time, and the Thunder is Here for It

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

When Thunder training camp began back in late September, it was visions of glory that rumbled through the players' heads. Paul George arrived via trade in June, veterans Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton signed in early July and then, just 48 hours before camp began, Carmelo Anthony waived his no-trade clause to join up with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, with dreams of making a postseason run on the forefront of his mind.

Now, starting Sunday (5:30 p.m. Central, FOX Sports Oklahoma) with Game 1 of the first-round series against the Utah Jazz, that vision can start to come to fruition.

“This is part of kind of why we wanted to all come together, because we saw an opportunity,” Anthony said Friday. “This is actually a part of the big picture. This is the journey; to be able to accomplish what we came together to accomplish.”

Head Coach Billy Donovan and his staff worked all season to put the highly talented pieces together to create a formidable squad. Between Westbrook, Patterson and Alex Abrines all missing significant training camp time and the general newness of the group, it took a while for the team to find its groove. After an 8-12 start, however, the Thunder rallied to get 10 games over .500 in late January.

When Andre Roberson ruptured the patellar tendon in his knee, the Thunder stumbled some, but recovered upon the signing of the slashing, limber guard Corey Brewer. Since then, the Thunder has had some ups and downs, no doubt, but Donovan’s club ripped off three consecutive wins, all vital ones, to solidify the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference by beating the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies in a six-day span to end the season.

“The way we locked in and were able to get wins on the road is big for our confidence going into the playoffs,” Felton said. “It’s always good to go into the playoffs on a winning streak like that.”

Now though, the game is going to change. Despite what teams have done for 82 games, it’s just a truism that the game slows down and teams are more conscientious of getting back into transition. That puts an extra focus on capitalizing on the few opportunities teams do have to run, but also executing in the half court on offense in order to score efficiently, then set up the defense on the other end.

Between Westbrook, George and Anthony, the Thunder has a trio of All-Star-level scorers who can create a good look at the rim, no matter what the situation, which helps immensely in the postseason.

“You’re always trying to find ways to carve out a way to get some easy baskets whether it’s offensive rebounds, free throws, backdoor cuts,” Donovan said. “But sometimes up against the clock, you need guys that can generate offense for your team, or who can make a play, make a shot or make a play for somebody else.”

Although the crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena is always one of the most energetic and impactful in the league during the season, even Loud City makes an upgrade of itself come the postseason. With Games 1 and 2 of this series set in Oklahoma City, having that home court advantage to get things off on the right foot will be nice.

“I’ve been here when I was on the other side and it was wild and chaotic,” Felton said, recalling his series against the Thunder as a member of the Dallas Mavericks in 2016. “It’s loud and crazy and you can hardly hear anything, it’s going to be fun to be on the other side of that.”

It’s up to the coaches and players to capitalize on that verve, and to put the pressure on Utah to have to defend its home in Salt Lake City. Playing with intensity, focus and poise for 48 minutes is what’s required, and the Thunder is aiming to deliver on all of that.

“We have the experience, we have the knowledge. We have the talent and it’s all about getting out there and doing it,” Felton continued, with his typical intensity and passion. “We have a great coaching staff, the staff here is great as far as getting us prepared mentally and physically through the season. Now it’s time to go out there and take care of business.”

Thunder Notes & Quotes:

- Shooting guards Alex Abrines and Corey Brewer were both on the court at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center on Friday, but neither went through practice. Abrines is still in the concussion protocol, but was going through shooting drills during media availability. Brewer is still recovering from the knee sprain he sustained on Wednesday against Memphis. Their statuses for Game 1 against Utah will be determined later this weekend.

- If one or both of Abrines and Brewer cannot go on Sunday, it may mean an uptick in minutes for rookie guard Terrance Ferguson, who is coming off a 4-for-8 shooting night (all 3-pointers) against Memphis. Donovan has praised Ferguson this season for his quick feet, and quicker mind. As a person, Ferguson is the type of guy who looks you in the eye when you talk to him, taking in each word. That attribute came in handy when he played last season in Australia, and has helped on the court here in Oklahoma City to pick up on assignments from Donovan and the staff.

“The experience of playing in games and getting more and more comfortable with the speed and the pace of the game, getting familiar with different kinds of actions, I think that probably has helped him see what’s getting ready to come, what’s getting ready to happen,” Donovan said of Ferguson’s rookie year. “Guys like Terrance, who are hard workers and they’re smart and they’re bright, the more experience they gain, I think generally they get better there defensively.”

Practice Rundown: April 13, 2018

- Ferguson will have plenty of veterans in addition to the coaching staff to guide him during the postseason. There’s a plethora of playoff experience on the roster, and while most players won’t change their routines or who they are during this time of year, they did highlight what gets accentuated. For instance, Anthony said in the postseason film is his “best friend”, and that he looks for the small details of how the opposition plays in order to carve out slight advantages. Being in this setting again, and preparing intensely for a series, for the first time in five years is a welcome feeling for Anthony, who is excited to bring his expertise and experience to the Thunder.

“For me personally, to actually be here preparing for Game 1 in the Western Conference Playoffs, this is where I always wanted to be and this is something that going into every season that I always strive for and work towards,” Anthony said “Knowing how the games are going to be, knowing different situations in the playoffs, the emotions that goes along with playing in the playoffs and kind of just keeping everybody together when things don’t go our way, a couple possessions or a game don’t go our way,” Anthony continued, “that’s where my experience come in at.”