- Tip-off: 7 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Statistically, the Thunder is doing something no other team in the league is currently: holding its opponents to less than a point per possession. Through the first 20 games of the year, Head Coach Billy Donovan has his bunch humming on the defensive side of the ball, holding teams to just 99.8 points per 100 possessions.
Those defensive numbers were bolstered by holding Cleveland to just 83 points on Wednesday night, and the Thunder has a chance to keep it up with another strong showing at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday against the Atlanta Hawks. The goal on every possession for the Thunder is to contest at the three-point line and limit the number of attempts from deep.
“We have the personnel to do so. I think that’s what it stems from. We have defensive-minded players and we have guys who are gifted defensively,” said Paul George. “You put those two together and you got enough guys who can do that, you’re going to have a good defensive team and that’s what we have.”
Once the ball gets pushed inside the arc, the Thunder is resisting the temptation to rush extra defenders over, which can often open passing lanes for catch-and-shoot threes. Instead, the Thunder is trusting its defenders to stand up drivers and force them to shoot contested shots over length.
“We have talented defensive players that can guard the ball. Any time you can play someone one-on-one and you’re not having to bring over help… generally when there’s two on the ball, you’re playing four against three on the offensive end,” Donovan noted. “When you can defend and guard the ball without help and fouling, that’s the best way.”
“(We’re) meeting them at the rim,” added center Nerlens Noel. “One of the main things we’ve been focused on since day one is one-on-one defense. We did that in almost every practice since the season started, so I think it’s just paying off. Guys staying in front, holding their own.”
Watch: Game Preview
On Wednesday the Thunder blocked 11 shots and sent the Cavaliers to the free throw line just 9 times for the entire game. Part of the reason was the team’s discipline at the rim, which included Nerlens Noel’s ability to play a foul-free 14 minutes while recording a block and deterring many other shots. This season, Noel is shooting a career-best 63 percent from the field, but more importantly for this Thunder squad, is averaging career-highs in blocks and rebounds per-36 minutees.
“(Noel) is really active on defense. He’s got great hands. He rebounds well. He rim protects well. He’s a really good roller to the rim,” Donovan listed. “At the center spot, just physically at times where he’s going against guys who are certainly bigger and stronger and I think he can use his feet and his quickness to be a little bit disruptive.”
“I can bring so much to the court when I’m on there, just defensively, offensively, just being in that pick-and roll, getting back, making the small little plays that change the game throughout,” said Noel.
The Thunder (13-7) will need to be strong inside again as it takes on the rebuilding Hawks, with players like John Collins, DeAndre Bembry and Kent Bazemore putting pressure on the rim. As a team Atlanta (5-17) hasn’t been as efficient on either end of the floor as it would like, but still has potential star power emanating from the backcourt.
Rookie point guard Trae Young, formerly an Oklahoma Sooner, is averaging 15.9 points and 7.6 assists per game this season, though his shooting numbers in October were better than they have been this month. Like any rookie, the adjustment from the college to NBA three-point lines will be a process, but the Thunder is fully prepared for a talented playmaker to walk into Chesapeake Energy Arena for the Hawks. With the possibility still existing that Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo will remain out due to ankle injuries, the Thunder must be ready to step up and guard the ball out front.
“(Young has a) really good feel of how to play, a really good passer. Obviously, an exceptional shooter with range,” said Donovan. “Getting an opportunity like a lot of different younger players to play a significant role and get significant minutes, I think from that will only get better.”
Watch: Practice Report
- Terrance Ferguson is out tonight. Hamidou Diallo is available, but likely won't play his regular rotation minutes considering he hasn't had a full contact practice yet since his ankle sprain. The Thunder started Alex Abrines, Dennis Schröder and Tim Luwawu-Cabarrot in each of the last three games, but Donovan announced that Abrines will be lining up against Hawks rookie Kevin Huerter as the starter at shooting guard tonight.
-Regardless of who starts, the Thunder as a unit must stick to its principles and continue to take each possession seriously and prevent the opposition from racking up high percentage scoring opportunities. If Donovan's squad plays its brand of basketball from the opening tip through the final buzzer, it should come away with a victory tonight.
- “It’s about us. It’s about building our standards. We have to be the team we want to be. We can’t rely on what they’re going to do, who we’re playing,” said George. “It’s an NBA team. We have to come and play our style and dictate how the game is going to go.”
News & Notes
- While he had previously shown some ability in stints, Deonte Burton has been in significant rotation minutes for the Thunder over the past three games. He logged 21, 14 and 16 minutes respectively against Charlotte, Denver and Cleveland, and shot 11-for-20 (55.0 percent) from the field and 2-for-6 from three, averaging 9.0 points per game. While he’s been impressive as an energy player on defense, moving his feet on the perimeter as a two guard, Burton’s natural role will likely be more at the power forward or small forward spot, with the ability to body up bigger guys or switch onto guards. On offense, the Thunder likes his skill set to shoot, dribble and pass at his size (6-5, 245).
- “He has a good feel of how to play. There’s a balance with him. You want him to be aggressive but you also want him to be aggressive inside of what you’re doing,” said Donovan. “The fact that he’s jumped around and been in so many positions is challenging. I’d rather get him experience in between the lines to see what he can do and then hopefully, as we start to get healthier and healthier we can get him into one position.”