Total Trust: Thunder Looks to One Another to Close Road Swing – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at CHI
- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
CHICAGO – Every night presents its own mini adventure in the NBA – a set of specific tasks that must be accomplished against a unique opponent. The only way to get through it is to dig into the work of preparation, to keep bodies and minds ready and when the time comes to trust one another.
That latter element has perhaps been the most transparent of all of the Thunder’s virtues during a dominant November and a strong start to December as the team has racked up wins in 16 of its last 19 games, including four straight. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club is on the road again on Friday to close out a three-game Eastern Conference swing and in order to close out the trip the right way, that trust will be crucial against a young and hungry Chicago Bulls squad.
“Through bad times, through good times we just have to stay together and play our game,” said guard Dennis Schröder.
Another quality of this Thunder squad that can certainly travel from the Big Apple to the Windy City is the defense, which is versatile, flexible and capable of causing problems for opponents regardless of the strategy or matchups. Against the Bulls, the Thunder will have to deal with the impressive, productive scoring prowess of Zach Lavine, who already has 20 games of 20-or-more points this season for the 5-20 Bulls. Ascending forward Lauri Markkanen will launch from behind the arc, where he is averaging 9.5 attempts per game and got up 13 from distance against the Indiana Pacers in Chicago’s last game.
“You’re going to have to guard them off the dribble. They have a lot of guys who can put the ball on the floor,” Donovan noted. “Certainly they really try and take advantage of the three-point line with the way they shoot it. Lavine has played really well. He’s a dynamic scorer who can score and do a lot of different things.”
Fortunately the Thunder has veteran prowess and some bright defenders throughout the entire rotation. While Paul George and Steven Adams headline the defense in terms of individual impact, it can often start with the head of the snake in Russell Westbrook. Take, for example, the Thunder’s fourth quarter in Brooklyn when Westbrook’s recognition, IQ and confidence combined to implement a strategy of double switching, where Westbrook quarterbacked the rotations on the back side to get favorable matchups in place.
“Old mate, he’s got a couple sparks upstairs - old Russ,” quipped Adams. “Quite a smart guy, mate. He came in and changed our whole defense and said we should switch.”
“I think it was just a bit more better reads in terms of going all out on one option. There was a bit of confusion because it was kind of meeting the person halfway so it’s a judgement call now,” added Adams. “We did that a lot better so it helped with the screens.”
On offense, the Thunder has to continue playing the right way, showing the trust it did in the fourth quarter in Brooklyn and keeping the ball moving enough to make the opposition a step slow. Despite knocking down 13 three-pointers in Brooklyn the Thunder still isn’t shooting the ball as well as it can, but it is continuing to produce the types of looks that will be hyper efficient as the law of averages round out.
“Not every game is going to be perfect and we’re not out there to play perfect ball because it’s impossible,” George added. “We’re just going to play. We’re going to have fun. We’re going to play the game the right way. We share it. We trust all our guys on that court.”
Another 47-point night would be quite the treat if George were able to conjure another majestic performance two nights after his blitzing of Brooklyn, but in the likely event that doesn’t happen, he’ll play the way he always does: measured, controlled and within the Thunder’s offensive concepts. The challenges that came with so much change last season are gone, and George is completely free out on the court, basking in his ability to make plays as a true triple-threat.
“I’m really familiar, really comfortable. I feel at home here, being here a second year now. I know all these guys on a personal level now,” said George. “It’s chemistry and I think it shows on the court.”
“(George) just plays and when he gets going he feels it. There’s a lot of things that we run for Paul or do for Paul, but it’s not necessarily for Paul to shoot,” Donovan explained. “He likes reading the game. He likes playing the game. You have gotta put him in situations, in my opinion as a coach, to let him make those kind of plays where he’s not being boxed in.”
- Before the Brooklyn game, Paul George explained that the Thunder has to bring a requisite amount of energy, speed and effort to the floor against teams like the Nets and also like Chicago who are young, fast and hungry for a rare victory. That attitude seems to be clear for the Thunder this year, given that it is 13-0 against tams that are sub-.500 in the standings this season.
- “As far as experience, we have that. We’ve got guys that can make plays and win games for us but we give teams shots and opportunity if we don’t match their energy,” George explained. “They’re playing at home. They have nothing to lose. They’re going to come out here and give us their best shot. We have to really challenge ourselves to play at the level we need to.”
- In order to actually get that job done against the Bulls, the Thunder’s defense will have to be tight and controlled. Staying in front of the ball will be critical, so the pick-and-roll coverages must be sharp as big men and guards communicate throughout possessions. If the team can do that successfully, getting out to the three-point line to contest shots from players like Markkanen and Justin Holiday will be a bit easier. Shorter close outs mean better contested shots, which forces more misses and helps the Thunder finish out possessions.
- “Just doing a little bit of everything, not being a one-dimensional team,” George said. “We try to do everything – defend the three-point line and attack the paint. We have the personnel to do it, so we challenge ourselves to do it.”
NEWS & NOTES
- Rookie guard Hamidou Diallo was able to take part in his first game action since his dangerous fall in Golden State before Thanksgiving. It was the first time Diallo had ever fallen like that so it was certainly scary, but he was relieved when he found out it wasn’t a serious injury. Diallo has been rehabbing the past two weeks and was able to return in his hometown of Brooklyn. On draft night it actually seemed like Diallo might be headed to Brooklyn, but he said landing in Oklahoma City was the best possible spot for him. The 20-year-old played only 5 minutes on Wednesday but it was a wonderful opportunity to be on the court in front of friends and family. The rookie is still eager to get back into his regular rotation minutes as he rebuilds his rhythm.
- “I’m definitely anxious,” said Diallo. “Any basketball player or any competitor should never want to sit on the bench and see his team go to war every night.”
- "It’s going probably to take him a little time to get back. I understand that, for the amount of time he has been out,” Donovan added. “Getting back in a rotation hopefully will expedite some of that.”
- After most games, Westbrook and Paul George have been giving out their shoes to a lucky youngster in the crowd. More than half of the building in Brooklyn was outright cheering for the Thunder by the end of the night, so there were plenty of kids to choose from in the crowd. After the game George explained the motivation behind the shoe giveaway.
- “For me, the only joy I get out of it is the joy and thrill they get out of it. It’s a free shoe for me. To them, it’s a memory and bond we have,” said George. “They come and represent me as being a fan of my game and who I am as a person and in return I appreciate it.”
- After the Thunder’s outrageous, record-setting comeback from 23 points down most of the focus was on George’s incredible 25-point fourth quarter, but there was a brief moment to address the history in the building too. With his 108th career triple-double, Westbrook passed Jason Kidd to stand alone at third all-time in that category.
- “It’s an absolute blessing. I’m very, very humbled and blessed to be able to go out and play the game I love,” said Westbrook. “I don’t take it for granted to go out and compete at a high level. A Hall of Famer, Jason Kidd, to be able to pass him is not something I ever even dreamed about. I’m honored to be able to do that.”
- On a recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Westbrook also teased an upcoming holiday drop of more apparel as a part of his Honor the Gift clothing line. He was asked about the origin of the name for his passion project and explained it to a throng of New York media.
- “The name for me comes from a bible verse,” said Westbrook. “Honor the Gift for me means that everybody has a gift. Everybody has been blessed with a particular gift. God wants everybody to honor their gift and understand how important their gift is and that’s where I got the name from.”