Clash of Styles in First Thunder-Grizzlies Matchup This Season – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC vs. MEM
- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
It’s nearly the All-Star Break, yet the Thunder is going up against a Western Conference foe for the very first time this season. When the Memphis Grizzlies come into town, there will be a lot of potential change to deal with, and that doesn’t even include the buzz that will be brimming all Thursday morning and early afternoon as the NBA’s 2 p.m. CT trade deadline approaches.
Even in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, the Grizzlies were missing 8 players from their lineup, both due to injuries and potential trade scenarios looming in the coming days. All that swirling uncertainty can be distracting to a team in preparation for an all-important home game in the second half of the season, but the Thunder prepares methodically.
An advanced scout has taken in recent Grizzlies games and relayed pertinent information to Thunder coaches, who in turn are distilling and delivering that to the players so they have a sense not just of who this Memphis team is from a personnel standpoint, but what they’ll try to do regardless of which five players are out there.
“Whoever’s playing, we’ll have to do the best job we can to get our guys up to speed on that,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “There is a system and a style they’re going to play to. Those players will be plugged into that system.
“They’ve always been a very physical team, a good rebounding team. They have great size up front,” Donovan continued. “(Mike) Conley is playing at a really, really high level. They’ve shot the ball well from three here lately. We have to defend the three-point line. I think that’s the case for every game and certainly rebounding the basketball will be critical.”
While the Thunder will be ready for what the Grizzlies throw out there schematically, it will also have to be prepared to win the tempo battle in this game. Donovan and the coaching staff have been urging the Thunder to play as fast as possible at every opportunity, ranking 2nd in the NBA in pace (possessions per 48 minutes). Memphis, meanwhile, is trying to slow the game down, playing at the slowest pace in the league. Both teams have had some success defensively with that style, as the Thunder ranks third in defensive rating with the Grizzlies a few slots behind in sixth.
Watch: Thunder-Grizzlies Preview
Recently, however, the Thunder hasn’t lived up to its full-season identity, allowing 134 points to Boston in a loss on Sunday and 122 points on Tuesday in a win at home against Orlando. The Thunder is 8-1 in its last 9 games, but knows it has to tap back into its defensive identity over the next week to head into the All-Star Break on the right foot.
“It is a long season we are going to have ups and downs. End of the day, we are learning as we go. Taking it one game at a time,” said forward Paul George. “Games are going to get away from us. Majority of the time, this group knows what is working. We get to it. We figure out ways to win games regardless.”
“We understand mistakes are going to happen throughout basketball games,” added forward Abdel Nader. “It’s never going to be perfect and I think our intensity, energy, ability to force turnovers, and our length and athleticism on the defensive end is where it all starts for us.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Thunder wants to just keep humming along as it has really since the start of the 2019 calendar year. Since January 1st, the Thunder has the 8th-best offensive rating in the league while averaging 121.6 points per game, 2nd-most in the league. Russell Westbrook has been the catalyst to helping the Thunder offense along to 47.1 percent shooting, including 41.3 percent from three-point range, and 25.2 assists per contest. During that same five-week time frame, Westbrook is averaging a league-best 12.8 assists per game, three more than the next player.
“(Westbrook) is a floor general. He sees everything. He gets everyone involved,” said guard Terrance Ferguson. “You either stop him or stop us and that’s hard to guard, especially when he’s in the attack mode like that.”
In order for the Thunder to burst past the grind-it-out Grizzlies, Westbrook and his teammates will need to get to that high gear once again.
Sources say: Game at 7. pic.twitter.com/0vU3Jrqz2w
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 7, 2019
- With all the chaos of this part of the season, the Thunder’s leaders are focused internally. Unable to control what the Grizzlies do or who plays on the floor tonight, Westbrook and his teammates will look to play to its core identity for all four quarters and worry less about the opposition’s exact makeup.
- “I just worry about what we do,” said Westbrook. “Just continue to play fast, continue to play the way we’ve been playing and defend for 48 minutes.”
- With 18.4 fast break points scored per game, the Thunder ranks fourth in the NBA in transition offense, scoring 16 percent of its total points out in the open floor. Between Westbrook and fellow point guard Dennis Schröder, the Thunder always has a dynamic, speedy point guard on the handle to keep the action flowing up the court. With speedy wings rushing to the corners and big men carving out space in the middle, the Thunder’s quick-strike attack has been potent lately.
- “It’s big, especially for both of us to push the pace when we have the ball in our hands and find ways to keep the pace high,” Westbrook noted.
- “One thing I know is there’s no scout for speed,” Westbrook added. “You can’t determine how fast a person is going to go. There’s no scout for it. The only thing you can do is hope you can get back.”
NEWS & NOTES
- Alex Abrines (personal) did not practice on Wednesday.
- On Tuesday night the NBA announced that Thunder rookie guard Hamidou Diallo will be one of four participants in the 2019 Slam Dunk Contest on Feb. 18 over All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. Over the course of the season, Diallo has thrown down 22 dunks, sixth-most on the Thunder, despite playing the 10th-most minutes.
- “It’s a great opportunity, and when I got the news I was really excited. And I look forward to it,” said Diallo. “I’m very creative. I’m natural, and I can get the crowd going. That’s what this contest is about.”
- Besides missing the Thunder’s win over the Orlando Magic on the road last week, center Steven Adams has scored in double figures in 14 consecutive games. A continually reliable force for the Thunder, Adams has been finding some new creative ways to score. On the first possession of Tuesday’s game Adams converted a slick layup after a euro-step then in the second half received an outlet pass from Westbrook for a rumbling fast break finish. After the play, point guard Dennis Schröder and Adams chuckled side by side on their way back up the court.
- “Everybody knows (Adams) is the best guy on and off the court. He’s such a great teammate and he’s special as well,” said Schröder. “You know that breakaway dunk, we was talking [and] just joking around having a good time, and that’s what we need in this locker room. Just playing with fun and competing out there.”
- Including his 18-point third quarter explosion last week at Orlando, Schröder has been on a scoring binge, averaging 21.3 points on 63.5 percent shooting over the last four games. As a super-sub off the bench, Schröder has been an incredibly valuable change of pace and scoring option for the Thunder and a bona-fide Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
- “(Schröder) brings that energy,” said George. “He is a starting player anywhere else. He is a big-time player. He knows how to make plays. He is key piece for us.”
- A bright moment in the locker room after the Thunder’s win came when Jerami Grant informed Ferguson that the Thunder in-arena operations play a couple notes from the Fergie song, “Fergalicious” when the second-year guard hits a three-pointer. Locked in during the game, Ferguson himself hadn’t noticed until Grant filled him in.
- “That’s funny. I like that,” giggled Ferguson. “They should keep doing it.”
Practice Report From Wednesday