Putting the Defense to the Test – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at CLE
- Tip-off: 2:30 p.m. CT
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
CLEVELAND – The Thunder’s defense has stood up to the test in second halves of each of the past three games, but on Saturday afternoon it will face one of its most robust trials to date – a matchup with the reigning Eastern Conference Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the Thunder has held its past three opponents to under 40 points in each of the past three second halves that it has played, against the Charlotte Hornets, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers, it faces a Cavaliers squad that ranks fifth in the NBA at 109.4 points per game on the season. Cleveland is shooting 47 percent from the field and racking up over 23 assists per game, and it’s no wonder considering how veteran-laden the roster is. At each position in its rotation, the Cavaliers have a player who is at least 26 years old.
The Spark Plug
“A really explosive team,” Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan said of the Cavaliers. “Offensively, (they) really spread you out. Great-passing, ball-movement team. So, it’ll be a great challenge for us defensively.”
“We have to go out there and do what we do, still play our game, get out in transition, run and play good on the defensive end and get stops, do the things we love to do,” said guard Andre Roberson. “(Adrian Griffin) Griff put a great scouting report together today. We’re going to go out there and execute it, get it done and make it happen.”
Thunder Talk: Andre Roberson
A new wrinkle for the Cavaliers has been the recent addition of the quick, skilled and unpredictable point guard, Isaiah Thomas. Since the beginning of the new year, Thomas has played in six games as he returns from injury, and is scoring 14.8 points to go with 3.5 assists in 24.3 minutes per game. He’s not completely back to full strength, but he’s certainly a threat at all times to go off.
“With the way he shoots the basketball and drives and penetrates and passes and plays, he definitely gives their team a different dimension,” Donovan noted.
The most important piece of the Cavaliers puzzle is, of course, LeBron James. The do-it-all megastar is leading his team in points and assists, in addition to blocked shots, as he finds ways to do it on both ends of the floor at age 33. It won’t just be up to players like Roberson and Paul George to handle his strength and physicality, but a task for the entire five-man defensive unit to solve together. The way James can power into the paint to score on his own in addition to create for teammates is a problem the Thunder will be working on for all 48 minutes.
“It’s always a challenge, going against the best is a thing I love to do. It makes me better,” Roberson stated. “He’s pretty strong, very physical. He likes to get to the paint, he’s a great passer and is the engine for the team. They go as he goes, to be honest.”
Despite the competitive nature of the battle, Thunder players are still appreciative of James, his historical significance for the game of basketball, his ambassadorship for the NBA and the impact he’s made on and off the court in his career for the youth in this country and across the world. On Saturday James has the chance to become the seventh player in NBA history to break 30,000 points scored for a career, and if he scores 25 points, he’ll become the youngest to ever do it.
“He’s done a lot of great things for the game,” Thunder point guard and reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook said of James. “Him reaching crazy milestones and him being a competitive player and doing the things he’s done off the floor, you can definitely commend him.”
Thunder Talk: Russell Westbrook
- Roberson participated in practice again with the Thunder, coming off of his return to action on Wednesday against the Lakers, in which he played 17 minutes. He said he was a little bit winded getting back into live basketball after missing eight straight games, but that over the past two days he’s spent a lot of time doing sprints and conditioning work in the practice facility to get ready for Cleveland. Roberson also explained that the time away from the court was difficult, but rewarding.
- “You see a different perspective, not just for the game but being healthy,” Roberson explained. “It just makes you work extra hard, put that much work in to get better each and every day and not take things for granted. It makes you realize that it’s a blessing, this job that we have, and it’s pretty cool, battling with the guys.”
- Roberson’s injury and what it taught the Thunder about itself is one of the many dynamics that inevitably occurs during the course of an NBA season. For the Thunder, this year has been about many things – integration of new players, navigating adversity and handling success. Each season is a journey, and no one knows that better than Westbrook, who is not only the team leader but the point guard who helps ensure that everyone is comfortable and productive. Being a steadying force during all of the challenges that can come during a season is the most important part of Westbrook’s job.
- “You’ve got to embrace and enjoy each and every day, have a chance to come to this building,” Westbrook explained. “Throughout the NBA, there’s gonna be times where you get new teammates, new guys, and you’ve got to be able to understand your teammates not just on the floor but off the floor. To me, that’s a part of leadership, something I’m very prideful in and try to continue to grow and use throughout the season.”
- “Just the relationship I get with guys, that’s the reward for me,” Westbrook continued. “The basketball stuff will come, and that’s easy to fix, but I think the relationships you have with guys is more important beyond basketball, and that’s something that I see that’s worth it.”
Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan