The best opponents bring to light the areas that a team most needs to work on, and for the Thunder it’s been extremely helpful to learn those lessons. As Head Coach Billy Donovan and his staff uncover more and more about their squad, those opportunities to go up against the most challenging foes will be seen not only as chances for victory, but also time for growth.
In the games played thus far against teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, whom the Thunder plays this week, in addition to the San Antonio Spurs and other top-tier teams, Donovan has noticed a need for more, longer stretches of sustained high-level play on the defensive side of the ball.
On the season, Thunder opponents are shooting a middle-of-the-road 45.5 percent from the field but are making just 8.6 three-pointers per game. Over the past nine games, however, the Thunder is holding its foes to 44.9 percent shooting, which ranks sixth-best in the NBA during that time span.
“Clearly the consistency on defense,” Donovan said. “It’s trying to build a level of stamina to be able to do it over a long period of time. If you’re struggling offensively or have a tough night shooting the basketball, that’s the best opportunity to give yourself a chance to win.”
The Thunder is 5-4 during that nine-game stretch since Jan. 22, a further indication that the results on the scoreboard don’t always align with the caliber of play a team puts out onto the floor. Still, the Thunder doesn’t resign itself during a stretch of strong play. It knows it can continue to get better.
“There are some things that we need to get better at as a team, some things that we need to keep doing well and just have to be ready for tomorrow night,” guard Victor Oladipo said.
“On the defensive end we have to bear down and figure out ways to get stops consistently over a 48-minute period,” Oladipo continued. "We have to keep bouncing back and building off of what we’re doing.”
Thunder Talk: Victor Oladipo - Feb. 8, 2017
Part of the Thunder’s growth and evolution during this stretch is finding ways to further grow and develop the team. Particularly in the absence of Enes Kanter in the second unit, the Thunder must unpack new aspects of its team – try out different combinations and find ways to get stops and make plays as a unit. One of those trial runs has been to play Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams more minutes together with Thunder reserves.
- “We’re doing a good job,” Oladipo said of his pairing with Adams. “I try to read off of Steve-O and Steve-O tries to read off of me. There are still little things we can get better at or get used to with each other. We still have miniature talks during the game on where we like the ball and where each other needs the ball because we haven’t played together for that long of a time. We’re getting better, the chemistry is brewing and we just have to continue to keep getting better working at it.”
- “We just have to do a better job of leading the second unit and finding ways to make everybody better and make sure everybody can be effective out there,” Oladipo continued. “I’m learning that and trying to grow in that aspect as well.”
One player who the Thunder would love to have back in the regular second unit rotation is Spanish sharpshooter Alex Abrines. After not playing in four straight games due to back spasms, Abrines suited up and played eight minutes in Indiana, scoring six points on 2-for-4 shooting from three-point range, sparking a nice Thunder burst in the second quarter. Unfortunately, he tweaked his back again in the game, so his status for Thursday against Cleveland is not completely set in stone.
- “He gave us really, really good minutes in that first half and then in the second half he got dinged again and we had to take him out,” Donovan said. “He went through practice today and he’s feeling better. I’m anticipating him playing tomorrow but I’ll have a better understanding after shootaround about how he’s feeling and if he can go out and compete.
Abrines has been a crucial member of the second group, and since Dec. 21 when he broke through with a career-high 18 points against the New Orleans Pelicans, Abrines is shooting 46.8 percent from three and scoring 7.0 points in 16.0 minutes per game. It took him about a month and a half to adjust, but Abrines has found his rhythm and has become one of the team’s deadliest shooters when he’s been on the floor.
- “There’s always an adjustment period when you’re coming from Europe. The style of play is just different,” Donovan said. “The environment and the way they’re playing is different. Alex is a cerebral player, a smart player, has a good feel for the game and picks things up quickly.”
Donovan on Thursday's game vs. the Cavs