Long Road Stretch Ends with Division Foe - OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at POR
- Tip-off: 9:30 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
PORTLAND – After Friday night, the Thunder’s schedule doesn’t get any easier, but at the very least it’s longest extended stretch of time away from home this season mercifully comes to a close. The Portland Trail Blazers, a division rival whom the Thunder is seeing for the first time this season, will play host to the Thunder’s 12th game on the road in a 17-game span, with three of the Thunder’s five home games coming on the second night of a back to back. Over this current 34 day stretch, the Thunder has had eight nights total in Oklahoma City.
Despite all of that travel and the road weariness that follows, the Thunder has won 10 of its 16 games thus far, good for a winning percentage of 62.5, which is the pace of a 51-win team over the course of the season. The reason has been the defense, which has buoyed an offense that has been inconsistent shooting the ball.
Regardless of the way shots are falling from the perimeter on Friday in Portland, the Thunder must continue relying on its league-leading defense, which currently boasts a 101.4 rating. So long as the Thunder keeps taking high efficiency shots, attacks the rim and tries for catch-and-shoot jumpers, the law of averages will round out on the offensive side to match the defense.
Donovan After Shootaround
“If we continue to play that way on offense, we’ll be fine,” said reserve guard Abdel Nader. “The biggest thing we emphasize is just to keep our defensive energy up and that’s the thing that wins us game.”
With the Blazers, the defensive task is easier stated than accomplished. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are perpetual threats to shoot the lights out from behind the arc as well as dice up a defense with dribble drives. On the interior, center Jusuf Nurkic is effective in a different way, with post ups, put backs and finishes on rolls to the rim. Preventing the Trail Blazers from running its offensive script will be crucial, as will cleaning up the defensive glass to limit Portland to just one shot.
“If you let them run around freely, that’s when they get downhill, open threes and whatnot,” Steven Adams noted.
“Rebounding has been very critical in the past couple losses, so we definitely have to get down and rebound,” added Paul George, who has been putting his money where his mouth is this season by averaging a career-best 8.1 rebounds per game.
George is aided in the rebounding department by his potential All-Star teammates, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams, as all three players finished in the top 10 in Western Conference voting on the early returns thus far. Adams’ bruising style is a wonderful complement to the skill and nimble way George attacks, while Westbrook’s full speed charge provides another change of pace.
Tonight in the City of Roses.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 4, 2019
Right now, Westbrook simply isn’t shooting the ball well, but every other player who has ever played in the NBA not named Oscar Robertson is still looking up at Westbrook in his ability to impact the game on every level. He’s not only leading the league in assists and steals, but for the third-straight year, averaging a triple-double.
“When he’s not shooting the ball particularly well, there are other things he does as a point guard that can impact the game,” said Donovan. “It speaks to his talent level and how much he’s able to impact game just with his overall talent.”
“I try to help him as much as possible with getting comfortable. As much as he does for me, I want to do the same for him to help him get into a better rhythm,” George said. “He just goes and plays as hard as he can, whether it’s setting up guys, going to rebound, getting steals, he does so much more stuff than just score the ball. That’s the reason why we’re winning when he’s not shooting well. He just does so much stuff to helps that sometimes doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. He just makes winning plays.”
Despite Westbrook, a former MVP and one of the Thunder’s two best players, shooting just 41.6 percent from the field, 23.6 percent from the three-point line and 62.6 percent from the free throw stripe, the Thunder is still winning. There’s no further proof needed that Westbrook’s intangible influence and all-around game are a factor for this 24-13 club that sits near the top of the Western Conference.
With a pair of superstars and highly talented role players around them, the Thunder is positioned nicely as it approaches the halfway point in the season, which it will hit in one week, on Jan. 10 in San Antonio. There’s a cohesion on the defensive end, a brotherhood in the locker room and a spark of something special in Oklahoma City.
“More than anything it’s just us being together for another year,” said George. “That definitely helps and improves the team when you have chemistry and the chemistry continues to grow.”
“I expected us to be a really good team coming into this year and we’re where I expected us to be,” George continued. “We still have a lot more improvement to go.”
3 All-Stars. 3 ways to vote:
(Note: hashtags no longer work - NBA voting rules have changed this year) pic.twitter.com/UxaKknKUSo
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 26, 2018
- Between Lillard and McCollum manipulating screens from Nurkic out top and the shooting and cutting provided on the back side by Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless, the Blazers provide a ton of challenges when guarding. The Thunder’s bigs are going to have to do an excellent job of stopping the ball up high, and help defenders will need to be in position to make reads. The Blazers get back 25 percent of their missed shots on offensive rebounds, so the Thunder will have to find a body to box out on those long boards.
- “It’s going to be a lot of things. Certainly getting back in transition and getting matched up and defense set will be important (and) our ability to handle their screening actions, pick and roll actions,” said Donovan. “They do a good job of moving the ball. Even when those guys don’t shoot well, Lillard and McCollum, their ability to find Nurkic and their bigs in the pocket and make plays.”
- “They’re a really good offensive rebounding team as well,” continued Donovan. “They’ve always been a physical team rebounding the ball so you gotta finish possessions by rebounding.”
- Offensively the Thunder knows that it can and hopefully will shoot the ball better than the 45.5 percent that it currently is from the field, but by attacking the lane like it has (53.8 points in the paint, 3rd in the NBA), the Thunder can manufacture enough easy buckets to move the scoreboard. One crucial element tonight on the road in a hostile environment will be the way the Thunder values possession. So far this season the Thunder is 11th in turnover percentage, giving the ball away on only 14 percent of possessions. For comparison, Thunder opponents are coughing it up on 17.6 percent of possessions. Over the course of a game with on average 106 possessions, that difference can become major.
- “We’re really trying to play the right way. We’re trying to move the basketball and play together,” said Donovan. “The biggest thing for us is getting the ball towards the basket and then from there, we gotta make the extra pass and then we gotta make some shots. That’s what we’re going to have to be able to do.”
- “We’ve been doing alright, not great. Some halves better than others. Most of the stuff we can control, which is the good part,” said Westbrook. “Anytime you don’t turn the ball over and get a chance to shoot the basketball then get on the glass, which is something we’re good at, it gives us an opportunity.”
NEWS & NOTES
- On Wednesday night in Los Angeles against the Lakers, the Thunder looked as though it was in for a brutal back-and-forth affair in the fourth quarter, but the team’s second unit was dominant to start the fourth quarter. By out-scoring the Lakers on an 11-0 run early in the fourth quarter and absolutely demolishing Los Angeles on the glass to start the period, the Thunder’s reserves set a tone that the starters picked right up. Against the Blazers’ second unit that features veterans like Evan Turner and Seth Curry, the Thunder’s bench will need to step up again.
- “It’s just an energy type thing, it kind of sets the pace and keeps it going, the momentum,” said Adams.
- One of the key catalysts for the Thunder second unit was once again Abdel Nader, who scored 10 points in 14 minutes on 4-of-6 shooting, including a pair of three-pointers. Since entering the rotation on Christmas Day in Houston, Nader has shot 43.8 percent from the three-point line and averaged 8.2 points per game, scoring not just on spot up jumpers but also on catch-and-go drives to the rim. After not playing for much of the season, it’s been a pleasant jolt to see Nader make the most of his opportunity.
- “I learned a lot during my rookie year in Boston,” Nader recalled. “One of the biggest things was that if you stay ready you don’t have to get ready. Just constantly putting time in in the gym and watching film and taking care of business when it’s my chance.”