One on One Pride: Thunder Defense Looks for Toughness and Quickness – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at POR

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PORTLAND – The Northwest Division is the best in basketball with a total of 188 wins, 14 more than the next closest division and 26 more wins than the average for each division across the league. In an age of small ball across the league, some in NBA circles assert that the reason for that dynamic is because the Northwest also has the best collection of big men in the game.

Two nights after clashing with All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, 10 days after battling the Denver Nuggets and All-Star Nikola Jokic and four days ahead of a clash with last year’s Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, the Thunder and Steven Adams have to clash with center Jusuf Nurkic and the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers’ highly talented roster.

“It’s a team effort because not only do you have those guys that are really good offensive players and are really good in pick and roll, you have a really, really good roller in Nurkic and you also have a great passer in Nurkic as well to connect the back side,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “That stuff starts with the two guys in pick and roll and then the three guys that are behind the pick and roll, how well we can help one another and cover for one another.”

Against Minnesota, Adams had an incredible challenge of having to cover Towns in pick-and-roll, on the perimeter as a shooter, as a driver and an offensive rebounder. Like many of the new-wave big men in the NBA, versatility with size is a devastating combination.

“(Adams) is dealing with a guy that shoots three’s and puts the ball on the floor at 7-feet,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “He’s having to be in pick and roll coverage and having to get back to him. That’s a challenge.”

While Nurkic is not a three-point shooter, he is a handful in pick-and-rolls with his skill level, ability to put the ball on the floor and passing, so the task will be similarly difficult.

The rest of the Thunder roster can help Adams out with the job by being quick on their feet, physical off the ball and mentally tough enough to keep Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Seth Curry, and Evan Turner out of the lane. The Blazers are one of the best teams in the league at attacking the paint for kick out three-pointers or to force rotations that leave opponents vulnerable for offensive rebounds.

“With good offensive players you’re going to get beat. The dribbles that hurt us are the straight-line drives where it’s just a catch and it’s straight to the basket,” Donovan explained. “If a guy is driving and he’s gotta change direction and he’s gotta cut back, go between his legs and behind is back, it gives your back side help a chance to rotate, come over and provide help. When it’s just a straight-line drive right to the rim, it’s really hard to provide a lot of help there.”

“We’ve gotta have more resistance there. It’s not necessarily the matchup, it’s our team,” added Donovan. “Our perimeter guys have gotta basically continue to hang in there and battle and fight as best as they can and make it as difficult as they can.”

For the Thunder much of the defense comes down to individual pride and the tenacity to get stops on demand. The Thunder and Blazers are tied in the standings with the Houston Rockets at 39-25, all in a dead heat for the third seed in the Western Conference. So far this season the Thunder is 3-0 against the Blazers and 2-1 against the Rockets, but a win on Thursday could be a huge leg up if there’s a three-way tie. The pathway to surging ahead in the standings comes on the defensive end.

“We just gotta do a better job of our individual matchups,” said forward Paul George. “We gotta do a better job of helping one another, get back to scrambling, making plays and really just making teams work from one side to the other side back to the other side, just exhausting them with our energy on the defensive end.”

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- Throughout the course of the season there’s bound to be slippage in certain areas on the floor. Some of it comes from the grueling nature of playing 82 games, opponents wising up to your strategies or from a coach’s perspective, a lack of practice time. That’s why when the Thunder gets a chance to have a good shootaround like it did this morning, it takes the opportunity seriously.

  • “The first thing we did today is went over rotations to clean that back up again. We went over help-side defense, just to clean that stuff up again because I do think there’s slippage in certain areas,” said Donovan.
  • “It’s using our length, trying to shrink the floor, trying to make it as small as possible for guys that can get almost anywhere they want on the floor,” added George.

- The Thunder recognizes that there may be some necessary growing pains as it integrates Markieff Morris into the group but that the possibilities of how his addition overall helps the team makes the acclimation period worth it. Morris is playing just 17.6 minutes per game since joining the Thunder, but averaging 7.6 points and 3.4 rebounds during that time on the floor while shooting 36.8 percent from three-point range. Defensively, Morris will continue to get in rhythm with the group but has a leg up because the terminology is similar to what was used by his old coach in Washington, former Thunder head man Scott Brooks.

  • “It doesn’t necessarily alter the way you’re doing things but you have a player you want to get up to speed, there’s a player you want to get out there to see what you have because there was only 20-plus games when he got here,” said Donovan of Morris. “He’s learning on the fly. The players are learning to play with him.”

1-on-1: Nerlens Noel</strong


-       The Timberwolves shot 11-for-14 (78.6 percent) on mid-range jumpers. In the Thunder’s three victories against the Blazers this season, Portland has shot just 12-of-44 (27.3 percent) on non-paint two’s. Despite those shots being the ones the Thunder wants to force its opponents to take, the key is to ensure that those jumpers are contested.

  • “From a coaching standpoint it’s probably ideal. The non-paint two, contested, long range one, you’ll probably live with it,” Adams said.

-       George returned to action on Tuesday night against Minnesota for the first time since the Thunder’s loss in Denver and after a day to get some work in on Wednesday, he hopes to be in better rhythm against the Blazers. George scored 25 points on 8-of-25 shooting, including 4-of-14 from the three-point line and 5-of-7 from the free throw line to go with 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. For many players that would have been a great night, but the MVP-level standard that George has played at this season, it was clear that the Thunder forward is determined to bounce back against Portland now that he made it through without any setbacks.

  • “I didn’t feel like there was anything in the (Minnesota) game where (George) was shying away from contact or avoiding contact,” said Donovan. “I was really excited because I thought he played aggressively.”