Adjusting on the Fly – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC vs. MEM

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. CT
  • Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

The Memphis Grizzlies may not have the same names in the lineup as it did over the past few years, but there are hints of a similar style that the Thunder will have to deal with on Sunday night.

A week after its last battle at Chesapeake Energy Arena, a loss to the sub-.500 Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder has a chance to get back into the win column with a battle with the rebuilding Grizzlies. While Mike Conley is injured and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are no longer with Memphis, Thunder players are preparing for a physical battle that revolves around the two-way abilities of center Marc Gasol. As both a playmaker and a defensive anchor, Gasol can be a handful.

“They still kept that identity, regardless. Their roster and starting lineup is a little different,” forward Paul George said. “But they kept that identity of playing hard and being that blue-collar, hard-working defense over there.”

“We still got to account for Gasol. He’s still playing at an All-Star level and is an All-Star caliber player,” George continued. “We gotta look at it (Sunday) as a real approach, that this is a game that we gotta come ready and prepare for, another team, a sub-.500 team we have to prepare for.”

Thunder Talk: Paul George

The other major cog for the Grizzlies is veteran guard Tyreke Evans, who is having one of the very best seasons of his career, averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. After sitting out seven of Memphis’ last eight games, Evans is expected to be back in the lineup on Sunday. His attacking nature has always made him a handful to guard, but that has been paired this season with an extra dose of perimeter shooting.

For the Thunder, that means players defending the ball must go over the top of screens to prevent him from taking open jump shots behind the big men. Some teams don’t employ that strategy against guards who aren’t known as shooters, opting to go under screens to prevent drives, but the Thunder sees being aggressive and attacking the ballhandler as the best possible route.

“(Evans) is a really talented offensive player,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s always been a guy that’s been good with the ball, a big, strong body getting in the lane and finishing at the rim. But the way he’s shot the ball and the way he’s shot the ball and the way he’s scored has been impressive this year.”

“Just keeping a body connected to him is important,” Donovan added. “A lot of times when you get off those guys’ bodies going underneath, they’re crafty enough to twist a screen coming back the other way or kind of probe behind it and stay back there and force you to make decisions.”

While the defensive side of the ball will always be important – and the Thunder ranks fifth in defensive efficiency this season – Donovan’s club can help itself out by generating good offense. Last game against the Lakers, Paul George shouldered a larger-than-normal offensive burden. He performed well, particularly in the first quarter, but will be looking to remain aggressive throughout all four quarters if both Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony are unable to go. Despite being listed as a small forward, George is more than capable of running this Thunder squad as its lead playmaker.

“I almost look at Paul George as being a point guard just because of his vision and ability to see and make plays,” Donovan noted.

Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan

Nick's Notebook

- Neither Westbrook nor Anthony participated in the Thunder’s practice on Saturday afternoon. The team went through contact drills but Westbrook and Anthony were limited to rehab activities and some light shooting. They will be game time decisions for Sunday against Memphis.

- Having neither Westbrook or Anthony on the floor on Thursday in Los Angeles gave George an opportunity to be thrust into a new situation, and he learned quite a bit from the experience. After every game, the Thunder forward is able to assess scoring or passing chances he missed out on, and George hopes to utilize that information to his advantage moving forward.

  • “I should’ve managed the game a little better against the Lakers,” George recalled. “I had it going early, and I should’ve kept that rhythm going, looking to be aggressive, looking to take it to continue on looking at shots.”

- The Thunder is continuing to see progress from second-year guard Alex Abrines, who despite not shooting it great on Thursday against the Lakers has made noticeable strides defensively over the past few weeks. After battling injury issues and it taking some time to get in rhythm earlier this season, Abrines has picked it up a notch lately. Coming into this season the focus was on his on-ball defense, and now he’s spent time on his helpside rotations and physicality as a rotating defender. As a result, his defensive rating has dropped by a point from last season’s.

  • “His on-ball defense had gotten better. I felt pretty good with it,” Donovan explained. “It’s been a lot of the stuff off the ball that he’s needed to do where he’s needed to throw his body into some plays, and I think he’s trying to be more more conscientious and doing a better job with that.”

- He’s been a threat all season long, but over the past two weeks the Thunder has done an extra good job of getting Jerami Grant chances to finish at the rim against out-of-position defenders at a much higher rate. Much of those “advantage” scoring opportunities where defenders are crashing over late to miss the play or to foul are generated by Westbrook or Raymond Felton attacking the paint, plus some good off-ball movement to keep the defense occupied. Grant himself, however, has done a great job of staying nimble and getting out of his screens quickly in order to create the separation he needs. In fact, the Thunder are scoring 1.16 points per possession with Grant as the roll man.

  • “There’s a technique to setting it but once you set a screen, sometimes guys get bumped or knocked off balance, but the footwork to be able to get downhill in front of the ball, there’s definitely a quickness factor to that,” Donovan explained.

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