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Both the Thunder and the Milwaukee Bucks have changed drastically since they last met on Halloween up in Wisconsin. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s team rolled in that game, clicking on all cylinders in a 19-point victory. But in the early going that type of performance was a bit of an outlier for the Thunder, as it battled through the necessary growing pains to get where it is now, 20-15 and 4 games out of third place in the Western Conference.
Milwaukee has changed for a different reason: personnel. A team’s personality also changes when a shakeup happens to the roster, and that’s what the Bucks are experiencing with burly and speedy point guard Eric Bledsoe in the fold and former power forward Greg Monroe off in Phoenix. That makes preparation for this group slightly different for the Thunder, although veterans like Carmelo Anthony have explained that simply coming out and playing the right way on both ends is what the Thunder looks to control.
Thunder Talk: Carmelo Anthony
“Monroe not being there takes away some size a little bit on the inside,” Anthony began. “But with Bledsoe I think it speeds them up, gives them another ballhandler, a guy who can push the ball, a guy who can push the pace, take Giannis (Antetokounmpo) off the basketball, let him run out in transition, do some other things.”
“It’s actually on us, to be honest with you. If we continue playing the way that we’ve been playing, I think we have a great chance of winning this basketball game,” Anthony continued.
A major reason for the change in the Thunder the past few weeks has been the way it has responded to start the second half. During the early stages of the season, teams were catching the Thunder off guard coming out of halftime, but in the five games since Dec. 19, the Thunder actually has a positive point differential of plus-12.8 in the third quarter. That’s compared to a minus-7.5 point differential during the course of the season during that period. There haven’t been different speeches in the locker room or some unique routine change, it’s just been a commitment to changing that has done the trick.
“The mindset, the focus, pushing ourselves, pushing each other to go out there and have multiple efforts and to play with a different focus and different effort than we did in the first half,” Anthony said. “We know that early on in the season that was a point that we were struggling at, coming out of that third quarter. We’ve turned that all the way around right now.
The Thunder is still just heading into its 36th game of the season. There is more than half of a season to go, and despite a six-game win streak and a 12-3 record in the month of December, the sample size is a bit small to make any declarations. But there’s certainly a different vibe around the Thunder these days – a swagger and a confidence – that is encouraging to see. All great things take time, and the Thunder is working on keeping the good times rolling.
“The pieces to the puzzle is coming together. Everybody is doing their job. Everybody is playing their part,” Anthony said. “Now it’s just a mindset of just going out there, winning, playing basketball, not worrying about anything else, focusing on doing your job and helping others and trying to win the game. Taking it one game at a time. That mindset has changed over the past couple weeks.”
Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan
- One of the major reasons the Thunder has been more successful lately is because of its work on the glass. Over the past five games, the Thunder is rebounding 54.3 percent of missed shots, including 26.8 percent of its own misses, both of which are top-10 in the NBA during that span. Those extra possessions have been critical, and they’ve been generated by players all over the lineup. Steven Adams has done a phenomenal job of keeping plays alive, Andre Roberson swoops in through the elbows to snatch up long misses, and Donovan says that Westbrook is the best loose ball player he’s ever seen.
- “The more you put the defense in scramble situations, the easier it is to offensive rebound because what happens is your block out assignments get altered,” Donovan explained.
- “It’s always easier to offensive rebound when you’re on the weak side, because most of those shots are coming off on the weak side,” Donovan continued. “Anything that’s above the break on in the corner, you’re on the backside, you can have pretty good vision of (it).”
- The same thing is happening for the Thunder on the other end of the floor, except those loose balls are turning into steals because of deflections. The Thunder leads the NBA, and it’s not particularly close at all in either category, with 18.0 deflections and 9.1 loose balls recovered per 48 minutes. The reason is that on defense, all five men are tied together, and even know which situations are more likely to produce deflections. When the ball gets pushed into certain areas of the floor, Thunder defenders have the chance to keep their hands high and disrupt passing lanes, and that’s when help-side defenders can get in position to attack.
- “It’s fun to be a part of it. It’s fun to be out there,” Anthony said. “And when it’s clicking it’s clicking.”
- Perhaps the biggest factor in the Thunder’s recent strong stretch of play has been how the team’s reigning NBA MVP is performing. It’s no surprise that when the team’s best player plays well, good things are likely to happen. In the 7 games since Dec. 16, Russell Westbrook is averaging 29.3 points per game while shooting 55.5 percent from the field, 81.3 percent from the free throw line, and attempting just 1.9 three-pointers per game. His assist numbers are still high at 9.9 per game during that stretch, and by getting into the paint, knocking down that pull-up jumper and attacking the rim, he’s helped the entire team be more efficient.
- “He realizes his strengths, his game, and what he does best,” Anthony noted. “What he does best is playing downhill, getting in the paint. I think the most important thing he’s doing very well now is taking what the defense is giving him, taking advantage of that.”