Playoff Practice Round-Up – April 22, 2017

A lot has changed in Oklahoma City between the Thunder’s last home playoff victory and Friday night’s 115-113 win over the Houston Rockets in Game 3. But one thing that remained the same was the home court advantage that the fans inside Chesapeake Energy Arena provided to the home team, urging them on and pushing them through to a hard-earned win.

For veterans like Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison, the ‘Peake’s abilities are inspiring but also normal. For guys like Taj Gibson and Victor Oladipo, playing in their first postseason contests in Oklahoma City, the experience was so much more.

“Since I’ve been in this city, there’s a lot of pride here,” Gibson said. “Seeing the sea of white and blue in the stands was awesome.”

“That was amazing. They told me it was going to be crazy, but then to actually experience it was crazy,” Oladipo added. “There’s nothing like the “Energy Arena” right?”

While what actually happens between the lines, the x’s and o’s and the execution, is what determines the outcome of the game, there’s definitely an added boost to the confidence and vigor of a team when it can play in an environment like Chesapeake Energy Arena can create. As the Thunder regrouped on Saturday for practice ahead of Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. tip-off, the team recognized that their relationship with the loyal fans in OKC can make a difference in a tough playoff series like this.

“You can feel the crowd,” Oladipo explained. “You can tell they’re into every play and every possession. It’s kind of surreal.”

- One player who has definitely utilized every ounce of energy in his body this series has been Andre Roberson, the fourth year guard who has spent seemingly every single moment on the floor next to James Harden, the Rockets’ star guard. Staying in Harden’s airspace for all 94 feet doesn’t guarantee anything against the supremely talented scorer, but Roberson has found a way to make an impact on defense, while also providing a unique offensive punch too.

  • “(Roberson) does everything and he never complains,” Gibson praised. “He always wants to guard the best player and he’s going to do it however many minutes he plays. He picks James (Harden) up full court and tries to frustrate him and tries to do whatever he can to slow him down.”

- Gibson himself spent some time on Harden, thanks to switches late in the shot clock that forced him to step up and slow down drives or contest three-pointers. He was at it on the offensive end again, early and often. The Thunder posted up Gibson on Ryan Anderson on multiple possessions in a row, and Gibson generated offense from there. He scored 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in his 29 minutes while also playing his brand of tenacious defense.

  • “Taj is a very real person. He’s straight-up and straight-forward,” Donovan opined. “He doesn’t say a lot. He comes in and does his job and does his work. He’s all about the team.”

- The way the Thunder utilized Gibson is similar to how it attacked throughout the game. Instead of hunkering down with defense-heavy lineups, the Thunder battled back against Houston by spacing the floor and putting the ball in the bucket more. In the second unit, Donovan ran Doug McDermott, Alex Abrines and Norris Cole on the floor alongside Jerami Grant and Enes Kanter, mixing and matching in Westbrook and Oladipo as creators. The Thunder’s reserves responded by racking up 35 points on 13-for-25 (52.0 percent) shooting, including a 5-for-12 (41.7 percent) mark from behind the three-point line. The veteran point guard and two-time NBA Champion Cole kept the pace high and moved the ball during his nine minutes on the floor.

  • “You have to put pressure right back on them because they’re an explosive offensive team and they shoot a lot of threes,” McDermott explained. “If we have a couple shooters out there it puts the pressure on them. Fortunately Alex and I were able to hit some shots down the stretch there.”
  • (Cole) does such a good job of running a team. He’s very vocal out there,” McDermott continued. “That’s really good for us on both ends of the floor. He keeps it really simple and has a great way of communicating to each player separately.” 

- One of the other facilitators of offense throughout the night was Grant, but not in a traditional role. Grant, the Thunder’s very own Swiss Army Knife, has defended nearly all five positions with the team, and has been utilized as a spot up shooter and slasher. In this series, however, Donovan has begun inserting him more as a roll man in pick-and-roll actions. On Friday night he caught the ball in the pocket and either attacked the rim or swung the ball to the weakside for an open shooter or to keep the offense flowing. He finished with six points and two assists.

  • “(Grant) did a nice job last night,” Donovan reviewed. “We were kind of able to facilitate through him a little bit with that second unit. He made some really good plays. His playmaking from that area was helpful last night.”

- An unsung hero of Friday night’s win who didn’t get a ton of attention was Steven Adams. He played only 26 minutes, took just five shots and scored only four points, but his final bucket was perhaps the most important one of the game. With the score tied at 111 with 35 seconds to go, Adams, who had just recently been re-inserted into the game due to the Rockets finally playing one of their centers, tipped in a Westbrook missed three, giving the Thunder a two-point advantage, which it held onto in the closing seconds. Despite sitting for quite some time, Adams was ready for his moment.

  • “For him to be on the bench for that long and then when his name was called he came in and gave us a huge bucket, that shows a lot about him being able to stay ready,” McDermott said of his teammate. “We needed that in the worst way.”