Limiting Mental Mistakes, Putting 48 Minutes Together – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC vs. PHI

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The Thunder’s post-All-Star break has been not just a challenge, but a test of wills as concludes February with four consecutive foes that are currently slotted in the playoff picture. After an outrageous double-overtime victory over the Utah Jazz the Thunder has dropped a game to each of the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets, with the Philadelphia 76ers coming into town for a second showdown this season.

The first matchup ended in thrilling fashion as the Thunder escaped Philadelphia with an unbelievable four-point play by Paul George and a tough defensive stand, but in order to maintain its stranglehold over the all-time series between the Thunder and 76ers, point guard Russell Westbrook wants to ensure his group emerges from the locker room with the right mentality before tip-off.

“Just be ready to go from the start,” said Westbrook.  

“It’s just picking it up on both ends. The leadership here is at a high level, from Steve to Russ to PG,” echoed reserve center Nerlens Noel. “We know what we gotta do to respond. Guys hold each other accountable. That’s a major thing.”

There are some specific things within the game that will be important for the Thunder to execute on in addition to having the right mental approach, starting with knowing personnel. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is a matchup problem for most guards, JJ Redick is an elite shooter who flies off of endless screening actions to fire three-pointers and Philadelphia has a pair of dynamic forwards in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris that can give opponents fits with their versatile manner of scoring.

Yet there are even more detailed aspects of the game that will be vital to success. Avoiding situations where the team is over-helping would be an excellent start, ensuring that each man is close enough to a Sixer to provide a solid box out when a shot goes up. While attempting to come over and help out a teammate, the Thunder has sometimes put itself in precarious positions by putting two players on the ballhandler or shooter.

“We had some guys leaving to go block shots that probably wasn’t necessary to go block shots,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan after the Thunder’s loss on Tuesday in Denver. “When you leave to pull across when there’s a guy on the ball to go block a shot, if you don’t block it, you leave yourself vulnerable to offensive rebounds.”

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The Thunder can also help itself big time by limiting the fouls it commits. On Tuesday against Denver the Thunder put the Nuggets to the free throw line 35 times, including a shocking 21 times in the fourth quarter alone. Overall, the team committed 34 fouls, many on reach-ins or over-aggressive play on the perimeter. Limiting those mistakes against Philadelphia will be important, even if the Thunder is trying to establish a physical identity.

“(34) fouls was a little excessive. For me personally, I’d rather it be that way. Let’s all foul out, now we’re prepared for the playoffs when they don’t call fouls,” new forward Markieff Morris cracked, half-serious, half-sarcastic.  

While the Thunder has lost 3 of its last 4 games, it won 12 of 13 games prior to this lull, so the team knows it can get back to a high level of sustained performance. It all starts on the defensive end for this team, where the Thunder has not been as crisp in recent weeks as it was to start the season. Donovan’s club still ranks in the top five defensively, but any slippage in that department can’t be afforded, even if the Thunder’s offense continues to perform solidly. Against Philadelphia it will take a full 48 minute performance, cohesion between the starters and reserves and a high concentration level – all doable tasks for this Thunder team, which is still scrapping to maintain its third seed in the Western Conference.

“Just continue to stay with it. We’re a group that has a lot of special talent,” said Noel, himself a former 76er. “We’re a relentless team that stays in games and definitely continues to fight and play hard. It’s probably just making a couple more right decisions that trend to a better path throughout the game and finishing it out. We’ll continue to figure it out like we have been.”

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- Harris is a newcomer to the Philadelphia lineup, but has been immediately productive upon joining the team. In his first 7 games, Harris has averaged 20.4 points on 54.5 percent shooting, including a 37.2 percent mark from three-point range, while also adding 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Thunder wings are going to have their hands full on the perimeter with Harris, but this team has the ability to get the job done.

  • “Adding (Harris) is a big thing for their team,” said Westbrook. “Adds more length, more size, another scorer, makes him a little more different team. They kind of play the same way still but obviously adding him is a big part of their team.”

- The player most likely to be tasked with tracking Harris from the outset is Jerami Grant, the springy Thunder forward who has proven to be a viable two-way option this season. Grant is coming off of a 21-point performance on 9-of-12 shooting, including a pair of three-pointers, in the Thunder’s battle up in Denver on Tuesday. In addition to being an improved shooter, Grant’s biggest continued strength is his ability to beat his man to the spot off the dribble. He’s averaged a career-best 13.2 points on 52.2 percent shooting this year, including 68.2 percent at the rim.

  • “For Jerami, for him at his size, (the key) is to get from A-to-B quicker than the next person,” said Westbrook. “That’s helped him a lot, to figure out how to change direction very quickly at his size, and him being athletic, one of the most athletic bigs at his position.”


-        Noel was a boost for the Thunder on both ends of the floor on Tuesday, providing 7 points, 5 rebounds and some tight defense on Nikola Jokic before fouling out. He figures to be an important rotation piece for the team coming down the stretch and into the postseason. His flexibility gives him the opportunity to guard players at multiple different positions, as he has stayed in front of guards with his dexterous feet and disrupted big men with his quick hands. While it appears that 76ers center Joel Embiid will not play, Noel will be needed against others on the floor.

  • “Just play my game. Go out there, change the game any way possible, try to put my team in the best position to win the game,” said Noel of his mindset. “It’s just growing, making the right decisions throughout the stretch of the game that will keep my team in a great position to win. I definitely have to be better in some areas.”
  • “Nerlens is a high basketball IQ player. He’s protecting the rim, he’s stealing extra possessions,” added his new frontcourt mate, Morris. “That’s what we need from the bench, to come out and change the energy and try to make a push every game and try to get victories.”

-        Alongside Noel in the rotation over the past three games has been Morris, who is averaging 17 minutes per game, along with 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds. With each successive game, Morris has continued to look more comfortable in his role and with what the coaching staff is asking him to do. As he and Noel spend more time together as a tandem, expect the results to look even more cohesive.

  • “It’s like riding a bike man, that’s all it is,” quipped Morris.  
  • “(The) comfort level is great. It’s only getting better and better,” said Noel. “We had a small conversation last game against Sacramento, if we keep doing what we’re doing, working on the chemistry, we’ll be a lethal frontcourt. As we continue to that, he’ll continue to get acclimated in the system, more comfortable and his looks will continue to be there.”