- Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. CT
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CLEVELAND -- What may have been a reunion on the court between former college roommates has turned into a battle in which the Thunder’s pivotal “next man up” mentality will be simmering on the surface of each play.
As the Thunder treks into the Rust Belt to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, the matchup will be marked with the intrigue of who is not on the floor, and the players who fill in to redistribute the load amongst the rest of the group. For the Cavaliers, it’s Kevin Love who is out for at least another month, while his old UCLA bunk mate Russell Westbrook is on the mend after a scary looking ankle sprain sustained in the Thunder’s nip-and-tuck win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday.
The Thunder announced on Tuesday that Westbrook will not play against Cleveland, but his status moving forward in the week will be determined based on the point guard’s progression. Despite the feeling of empathy for Westbrook that pervaded the bench, it was encouraging for Donovan to see his team react the way it did down the stretch. The Thunder’s advantage dipped to just two points, but a massive Thunder rally fueled the required margin of victory.
“(Russ) has got such a great relationship with those guys,” began Head Coach Billy Donovan. “For the guys it is normal to wonder, ‘is he okay?’”
“They kind of realized that they had to go out there and play,” Donovan continued. “They’ve got enough respect for Russell that they probably wanted to go out there and play as hard as they could for themselves, for each other, and certainly with him being in the back.”
The Thunder’s close to the game against the Pelicans sufficed, but it likely won’t withstand many more tests, particularly against a hungry Cavaliers team who just lost at the buzzer to the Orlando Magic on Monday night. In order to score efficiently down the stretch against a Cavaliers squad that has veteran defenders in George Hill and Tristan Thompson at crucial positions on the floor, the Thunder will have to play with better tempo, more decisiveness and with higher awareness. More of those downhill drives to the lane to create layups and kickouts, and less of the east-west dribbling that can get teams flummoxed with poor spacing, bad shots and giveaways.
“We can learn from coming out of the last seven or eight minutes,” Donovan stated. “We got some good shots and I thought we took some questionable shots coming down the stretch but overall thought the guys did a good job battling and competing and fighting.”
“We’re putting in a system. Guys are getting to know each other offensively and defensively. Have we gotten better?” Donovan asked rhetorically. “Time will tell.”
Lining up against Hill, Cleveland’s point guard, will be Thunder backup point guard Dennis Schröder, who spent recent years as a starter in Atlanta. The quick, agile and deft playmaking attacker scored nine straight points during a pivotal fourth quarter push against New Orleans, and will be called upon to play the role of creator and facilitator again for the Thunder up in Northeast Ohio. Coach Donovan and Thunder teammates alike have the utmost confidence in Schröder, who has scored 15 points or more in four-straight games, for an average of 18.5 points during that stretch.
“I have a great comfort level with Dennis,” said Donovan. “He’s a terrific player and he’s been a great addition to our team. He’s a great guy, he’s cerebrally smart, he’s got a good feel for the game.”
“The mindset is still going to be the same as next game even if he misses or makes the shots,” center Steven Adams said of Schröder. “His mindset is still the same. Same for the rest of us, it’s still the same it’s just that he made some shots which is good.”
1-on-1: Raymond Felton
- Russell Westbrook made the trip to Cleveland was with the team at shootaround this morning. Though he did not participate, Westbrook is able to take on the role that has been held by Raymond Felton as an extra set of eyes on the sideline and in the locker room. For Donovan, it’s fortunate to have so many veterans in the back court.
- “(Westbrook) can help those guys from the bench and locker room,” said Donovan. “He’s obviously more impactful when he’s playing, but he’s also impactful with our team when he’s not.
- “It’s huge,” said Donovan about Felton’s presence. “Ray has been a professional since Dennis has gotten here. He understands the length and duration of an NBA season. He’s done a great job of keeping himself ready.”
- It’s difficult to know exactly what the Thunder will get from the Cavaliers tonight. Despite their record, Cleveland has been in a lot of games late and has the makeup to generate efficient offense. From rolls into the pocket by Tristan Thompson to curling three-pointers by J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver, the Cavaliers have weapons offensively that will be a challenge for the Thunder to stymie.
- “They’re playing hard. They’re playing aggressive. They’re playing small in a lot of ways. They’ve got guys who can shoot it and put it down,” said Donovan.
News & Notes
- The playmaking duties won’t solely rest on Schröder’s shoulders, however. 2018 All-Star forward Paul George contributed 8 assists in the win against New Orleans, bringing his average to the season up to 4.3 per night. Schröder will also have veteran point guard Raymond Felton alongside him as a platoon mate and sometimes on-court partner. On Monday, the fan-favorite Felton entered the game and played just three minutes, but was a stabilizing force to the group when Westbrook went down. Felton will play a crucial role against Cleveland, particularly in his defense of rookie, lottery pick point guard Collin Sexton.
- “(Felton) contributed more than just the basket he scored. You saw when he came in the crowd went crazy,” noted George. “The crowd rallied behind his, and there was no drop-off. Ray kept us going, and that’s what we needed.”
- “He’s on the bench still engaged, a good professional, always tells me something when he sees something,” said Schröder. “He told me to run a couple of plays and was successful.”
- “He is an example of a player who hasn’t been playing that much but is ready to play,” said shooting guard Alex Abrines.
- Another reserve off the bench who continues to make things happen when he’s on the court is rookie Hamidou Diallo, who is averaging 5.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. During the Thunder’s 16-4 third quarter burst to vault past the Westbrook injury, Donovan’s club forced four-straight turnovers including three induced by Diallo. Two of those Pelicans giveaways were interceptions and two-handed slam dunks for Diallo, which sent the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a tizzy. The rookie’s minutes are hovering around 11, giving him opportunities of about 5 minutes in each half to go wild with energy. The Thunder could use the rookie’s best punch against Cleveland’s veteran second unit wings, J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson.
- “Hami seems to come in and make plays like that pretty consistently, whether it’s put-backs, whether it’s steals for dunks,” said George. “He’s a great weapon that we have. Seems like every time he’s thrown in there he makes something happen.”