Details First: Thunder Aims for Victory by Doing the Little Things – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC vs. POR

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. CT
  • Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

The Thunder has had its chances against the Portland Trail Blazers in the three contests between Northwest Division rivals this season. All three games have slipped away.

As Head Coach Billy Donovan and his staff have prepared the Thunder for its final regular season matchup against the Blazers, there’s been a common understanding that it’s not just a bad matchup with the Blazers, but that the Thunder has been doing things, or not doing things, to put itself in poor positions to win games. Those things aren’t inherent, or flaws, but parts of the game the Thunder can do at a higher level, for longer stretches.

“Very much so correctable,” forward Carmelo Anthony confirmed. “Things that we can control, we have to control tomorrow. In the games that we’ve lost to Portland, we didn’t control the things that we can control. And that’s why they’ve beat us three times.”

“Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you go back and look at those games, we could’ve won these games doing small things,” Anthony continued. “(There) will be a little more focus on doing those small things and giving ourselves an opportunity to win that game.”

So what, specifically has gone wrong for the Thunder against the Blazers so far this season? Portland has shot 49 percent from the field, which is the first number that jumps out. It’s simply very, very difficult to defeat a team when it shoots that well from the field. But further, the Thunder has hurt its chances by putting Portland to the free throw line 25.7 per game in the matchup. Defending without fouling, will be critical.

But it’s not just players like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum that the Thunder has to be mindful against. The Blazers are shooting just 36.8 percent from three against Oklahoma City so far this season, but have gotten scoring from players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins and Shabazz Napier from two-point range, in addition to the prolific scoring from the Blazers highly touted backcourt.

“They’ve had different guys in different times step up besides those two guys,” Donovan added, and I think that’s why they’ve been a good team all year long.”

Perhaps the most challenging player for the Thunder to defend all season for the Blazers has actually been in the frontcourt. Jusuf Nurkic, the bruising Bosnian center, has managed to find cracks in the Thunder’s defense on dives to the rim and catches in the mid-post.

“(Nurkic) is in a lot of pick and roll. They find him in good areas of the floor where he’s a really good passer and he’s a scorer,” Donovan explained. “So a lot of times he’s catching the ball in the pocket, he’s catching the ball in the mid-post. And then he’s able to make plays from there for either himself or his teammates.”

On offense, the Thunder has shot just 44.3 percent against the Blazers, a mere 33 percent from three and just 66.1 percent from the free throw line, on just 20.7 attempts. Losing the rebounding battle hasn’t helped, and that poor shooting has led to just an 1.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in those games.

One way the Thunder can unlock its offense against the Blazers is by giving it a dose of its own medicine. Of late, The Thunder’s screen-and-roll combination between Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams has been devastating to opponents, evidenced by a pair of impressive scoring outputs for Adams against Toronto and Miami in the past week.

Part of what makes Westbrook and Adams’ connection in the pick-and-roll so powerful is their shared experience together manipulating the action. There’s a wide variety of ways it can be defended. The Blazers will likely drop Nurkic into the lane to protect the rim. Other teams switch, trap or hedge hard onto the ball. Some opponents try to force the ball left or right, and others try even more exotic coverages to deal with Westbrook’s playmaking.

“All those scenarios that are created, the two players have to work together in those scenarios,” Donovan said. “Once the screen happens, the most important thing is that Steven try to get in front of the ball or ahead of the ball.”

With the Blazers, it’ll be up to Westbrook to attack that drop coverage that Nurkic gives, either by finishing over the top, hitting his elbow jumper or baiting the Blazers big man to commit one way or the other.

If the Thunder can get easy scores at the rim through Adams, Portland’s defense will either be giving up high percentage looks or be forced to adjust, potentially leaving shooters like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with breathing room on the perimeter.

Nick's Notebook

- In the month of March, Russell Westbrook has somehow managed to elevate his level of play to even greater heights, and is truly performing at an MVP-type level. This month the Thunder has won 8 of its 11 games, while Westbrook has shot 53.1 percent from the field, 38.5 percent from three-point range and 74.4 percent from the free throw line. Those shooting percentages have amounted to a 28.3 points per game average, in just 36.1 minutes per game, along with 10.5 rebounds and 9.4 assists per contest, with 5 triple-doubles. As Westbrook has risen, so have the Thunder.

  • “He always goes in there and tries to read the defense,” Donovan said of Westbrook and the balance he strikes on offense. “He’s played with really good tempo. He’s made good decisions."

- One of the major beneficiaries of Westbrook’s performance on offense has been shooting guard Alex Abrines. Over that same time span, the first 24 days of March, Abrines is averaging just 9.5 minutes per contest, but is shooting 51.6 percent from the field, and 53.8 percent from the three-point line, including 12-for-19 from distance over the past 8 games. In some games, Donovan has opted to use Terrance Ferguson or Josh Huestis in the first half then bring Abrines in for the start of the fourth quarter. Because of the communication between players and coaches, Abrines has been primed for those opportunities, and gets that matchups may dictate what happens with rotations.

  • “They have an understanding and awareness of what is going to potentially happen in the game and what their role and responsibility is going to be and when they could be called upon,” Donovan explained. “And you wanna give them every opportunity to get themselves mentally ready for those situations.”
  • “I just got to be ready,” Abrines said. “You got to find ways to keep your body warm. There’s heat packs, there’s a bike, whatever. Whatever feels good for you to, when that moment arrives, you got to be ready.”

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