Thunder Aiming for a Road Trip Hat Trick – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at POR
- Tip-off: 9:00 p.m. CT
- Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
PORTLAND – Early in the year, the Thunder continued to find itself in these situations. Games hung in the balance after 45-plus minutes of topsy-turvy basketball. There had been plenty of sensational moments, with some unfortunate ones mixed in between, and in those first few weeks, the ball didn’t bounce the Thunder’s way as the seconds ticked off the game clock. As the season has gone along, however, those fortunes have changed, and the loyal fans in Oklahoma City are desperately hoping that trend continues after four crunch time wins in the past nine days.
Tonight the Thunder finishes up a grueling three-games-in-four-nights stretch that began with an overtime win in Dallas and continued with a come-from-behind, last-minute win in Phoenix with a divisional battle against the Portland Trail Blazers. In the labyrinth that is the Western Conference standings, both the Thunder and Blazers are battling for position, but tonight’s contest for the Thunder will be more focused on maintaining a status of play for all four quarters. While that’s been like grasping smoke for the Thunder most of the season, the team has shown the ability to course correct late in games.
“We’re getting consistent on adjustments,” forward Paul George quipped. “We’re making the adjustments necessary to win games. That’s been consistent.”
“We know that any given night we have the players, we have the personnel to help us get a win,” fellow forward Carmelo Anthony explained. “We know we have the actual personnel. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of that.”
The reason that the search for consistency is ongoing, challenging and seemingly never-ending is because, well, that’s exactly what it is. During the course of an 82-game season, a road trip, a 48-minute game and even a quarter, the job of playing every possession with the requisite amount of concentration, focus, energy and communication is far from easy. Particularly when the job is to prevent a quintet of highly skilled NBA players from trying to perform their number one goal – to score the ball.
The Thunder’s defensive scheme in particular is highly demanding. It’s what has helped produce strong results during portions of the year and sections of games, but doing it time and again is a serious commitment. With the way that Head Coach Billy Donovan instructs center Steven Adams to rush up high to stop the ball at the point of attack, the remaining four defenders on the floor must not only be in the right position, but also ready to fire off into helpside responsibilities on split-second notice.
“You gotta protect the paint. You have to build back out,” Donovan began. “You’re in constant rotations and constant scrambles.”
“The best part about us is when we’re rotating and scrambling and we’re covering because of our length and our size, that’s when we’re really good defensively,” Donovan continued. “When we don’t rotate correctly or we’re slow to rotate or the ball gets ahead of our defense and we’re trying to play catch up, that’s when we’re not very good.”
Against the Blazers, the Thunder will have its hands full on the perimeter, making not just Adams’ job, but the entire five-man unit’s task even more difficult. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum headlining a backcourt that can launch threes from anywhere on the floor, make contested shots and carve lanes into the paint, Portland provides a test unlike many others seen around the league.
An added wrinkle is that in certain situations, the Blazers will also play with reserve guard Shabazz Napier as the third ballhandler on the floor alongside Lillard and McCollum. With essentially three point guards on the floor, Portland can turn any swing pass into a straight-line drive into the paint, and that’s been reflected in their recent five game win streak, which the Thunder hopes to snap tonight.
“They’re playing really good basketball. It’s a hard place to play. They’re a very good team,” Donovan said. “Obviously it’s a quick turnaround for us. It’ll be a great challenge for our guys to be able to come back in and be ready to play.”
UPDATE: On Saturday morning the Thunder made it official, with an announcement of the signing of veteran NBA forward Corey Brewer. The 6-9 swingman has a history of fitting on both ends of the floor - as a finisher in transition and a disruptive defender who can use length and quickness to draw charges and get in the passing lanes. Brewer will join the team in Portland, but his availability for game action is uncertain at this point.
- With just five points on Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will tie Jerry West for 24th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, with 25,187. When asked about potentially passing an NBA legend of West’s caliber, Anthony met the question with his trademark smile and wit.
- “The logo?” Anthony asked with inquisitive awe before cracking a joke. “They should put me as the logo.”
- While obviously reverent towards the people and players who have come before him in the league and the incredible impact they’ve had on the league, Anthony was coy about moving up the rankings, and much more interested in talking about the opportunity he and his Thunder teammates have in front of them during this home stretch. For Anthony, having the chance to jockey for a playoff spot.
- “It’s totally different. A different team, a different atmosphere, a different motivation now,” Anthony said. “To actually be playing for something and looking ahead at the big picture and having the opportunity to do something special, that brings a lot of excitement.”
- In the Thunder’s win over Phoenix on Friday, the second unit was excellent on the defensive end to start the fourth quarter, utilizing energy, extra efforts and rotations to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor. Preventing easy layups and kick out three-pointers stemmed from the Thunder’s strategy to just switch every screening action, and against the guard-heavy Blazers, Donovan may elect to do that again. Fortunately, he has the personnel to do the trick.
- “With Patrick (Patterson) and Jerami (Grant) as big men, they can defend guards so it’s easy for us to just switch everything and just scramble on defense,” reserve guard Alex Abrines noted.