- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
At the end of last week, the Thunder had rattled off 12 wins in 14 games, including two victories surrounding Thanksgiving to start off a stretch of three games in four nights. After coming back at 4:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning from the West Coast, the Thunder took care of business in crunch time on Friday against the Hornets, then came up short of a massive comeback against the Denver Nuggets.
Since then, the team has had a well-deserved Sunday off and a pair of practices at the Thunder Ion to set up Wednesday’s rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Just a few weeks ago, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s shorthanded club beat the Cavaliers on the road, but since then this young Cleveland squad has beaten the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers, changed up the lineup and gone full steam into a youth movement, which includes starting point guard, rookie Collin Sexton.
“There’s been some different dynamics and changes,” said Donovan. “There’ll be some things we can take from the game, but I think as their team has kind of changed throughout the last several weeks there will be some new things we have to get prepared and ready for.”
“He’s a young player that’s getting an incredible opportunity to play a lot of minutes. He’s only going to improve and get better from that,” Donovan noted. “(He’s a) highly competitive guy, puts the ball on the floor, has got really good open floor speed, has shot the ball from the 3-point line really well as a rookie.”
The Thunder didn’t have Hamidou Diallo or Terrance Ferguson over the weekend, and it remains to be seen whether they will play later this week. Either way, the last two days have been a great opportunity for the Thunder to get prepared for the Cavaliers, and make sure youngsters who are still integrating into the system like Tim Luwawu-Cabarrot, Deonte Burton and Abdel Nader are ready to come in and contribute if called upon.
“The guys who have been here for a while have been really, really good for the new guys in terms of trying to take time with them, help them, explain to them, get them to understand terminology and situations,” said Donovan. “Every game presents a different set of challenges and dilemmas. You’re always kind of having to kind of tweak and kind of change what you’re doing defensively.”
A particular aspect of the game the Thunder dealt with early this week was one it couldn’t address for much of the season – playing with Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schröder together. Because of Westbrook’s injury, partnering up the Thunder’s two lightning-quick guards has been tough to accomplish, but Donovan says his group got some helpful reps for that one-two punch that can open up driving lanes and open three-pointers.
“It’s still something that we can build out and need to continually work on when you have a chance to compete in terms of having contact in practice,” said Donovan. “We did get a chance to work on it a little bit, but you know as a coach you never feel like you work on it enough.”
“I just have to be ready on the weakside to catch and drive or catch and shoot it,” said Schröder. “It’s always great. In Atlanta, I just handled it probably every possession. Now it’s great to have two or three guys who can create with me at the same time on the court.”
So far this season, the Thunder has struggled shooting the ball, that’s been no secret, shooting just 31.1 percent on three-pointers overall and 31.4 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. By the law of averages and league average shooting percentages, the Thunder expects those numbers to go up over the course of the season.
Part of the reason is that while the Thunder is shooting 31.8 three-pointers per game, 25.3 of them are catch-and-shoot threes, the 8th-most in the NBA. That’s great news, because those are the types of shots teams are hunting and throughout the league are much higher percentage looks than off the dribble jumpers.
“Sometimes with the dribble, guys step back, they move to the side,” Donovan continued. “The whole shot is a lot different because of the footwork and having to get the ball off the ground, up into your hands, in rhythm, all those things. There’s a lot more opportunity to have some error or mistake than there is on catch and shoots.”
“With this team – myself, Russ, Dennis, Steve – I think there’s such a big emphasis of keeping us out of the paint that we’re getting a lot of catch-and-shoot (opportunities),” added Paul George. “It makes the game easier when you can run right into a 3-pointer and you can use all your energy on that shot.”
- Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo will be out tonight due to their ankle sprains, while Nerlens Noel is questionable with a leg contusion. Once again, the Thunder will have to have a next man up mentality.
- "We have a way we play. When you have a system and a way you play defensively, you can kind of stick whoever it is here,” said Westbrook. We all understand our job, our roles and it’s easy to adjust that way… It’s definitely been key for myself to be able to keep the group and everybody on the same page and everybody confident in what they’re doing so they can be ready to play when their number is called.”
- Like the entire Thunder squad, Paul George hasn’t shot the ball as efficiently this season as he’d like, but looking at George’s productivity is taking a glimpse at the best statistical season of his career. George is averaging career-highs in points (24.0), field goal attempts (20.1), three-point attempts (9.3), rebounds (8.1), assists (4.4), steals (2.4) and blocks (0.8) per game. Not only is George having his best season, but it is downright elite for anyone in the league on both sides of the ball.
- "That’s how he plays the game,” said Westbrook of his All-Star partner. “He has his hands on a lot of aspects of the game. He’s done that since he’s been here and since he’s been in the league.”
News & Notes
- Overall, Schröder is shooting 43.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, including 44.4 percent on three-pointers that come via pass by Steven Adams, 40.9 percent on those same shots on passes from Paul George, and despite limited playing time together, he’s shooting 43.5 percent on three-pointers that come through a pass by Russell Westbrook. As the percentage of shots Schröder takes after passes from the now-healthy Westbrook rises, it stands to reason that his overall shooting percentages may increase even further. The result in the long run will be defenders crashing out hard to contest shots, leaving potential driving lanes open for slashes to the rim.
- “When (Schröder) gets shots when he’s got his legs under him, he has a clean look and he’s balanced, I think he’s a very good shooter,” Donovan said. “Probably because of Russell being out there, because of Paul being out there, some of those situations have probably been created more for him.”
- “You want to get more of those (catch-and-shoot threes) for everybody, but the ball has gotta find the open man,” Donovan added. “As (Schröder) has shot the ball well it also opens up things for him driving too. We want him taking those shots, not that they’re forced or challenged, but the threat of him shooting it opens up the threat of what he does great, which is get in the lane and penetrate.”
- The Thunder’s drive-dish-finish offense that Westbrook and Schröder help helm is part of an overall evolution that the team has undertaken this season with a focus on pace and tempo on the offensive end and a commitment to contesting shots on the perimeter on the other side of the ball. At 12-7, scratching and clawing for a top spot in the West, the Thunder’s plan seems to be making progress.
- “We’re trying to play to an identity, which has helped,” said Donovan. “There’s room for us to get better in that identity. But I think the group’s just done a good job handling whatever’s been thrown at them and taking that challenge on.”
- “Offensively, we want to play a lot faster and get out in transition. We want to push the ball and play with a lot more tempo and pace,” Donovan continued. “We’ve been a team that’s been a good offensive rebounding team, a team that gets into the deep paint with a guy like Russell and Dennis and Paul that can put the ball down.”
- “Defensively we’ve been a team that’s really tried to put a big focus on the three-point line,” Donovan concluded. “Trying to defend the three without fouling too much or giving up too many layups or dunks at the basket, and we try to focus on those things each and every day.”
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