Defense is the Driver – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at ATL

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter | mailbag@okcthunder.com


Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

ATLANTA – Paul George learned at a very young age in the NBA how to take the more challenging, but far more rewarding road when it comes to defense on the perimeter. As George has continued to lead in Oklahoma City, his personality has helped the Thunder place itself in the top defensive spot in the league through being able to do all the dirty work required on each possession.

As the Thunder hits the road again for a quick one-game trip to Atlanta to face the Hawks, it wants to continue shoring up some defensive slippage that cropped up last week in losses to the Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s crew righted the ship on Saturday in its revenge win over the Spurs, but the team wants to use its talent, versatility and flexibility to knock their 102.9 defensive rating back down towards 100, where it stood for most of the first half of the season.

“We’re such a good defensive team and we’ve got a lot of guys that can guard,” said George.

“On the defensive end, our identity, how we want to play, we’re doing a great job,” echoed Dennis Schröder. “And we’ve just got to keep improving.”

While George is known as a lockdown one-on-one defender, much of his success this year has come from being an expert at anticipating off of the ball and being in perfect help-side position. Still, with as much as the Thunder uses its personnel wisely to switch on screens both on and off the ball, George is poised to chase all different types of players around.

“I have to be ready and make sure I’m not in foul trouble and I just try to dictate how the game is going to go based off of my defense,” said George.

“The guys that have high usage rates are the ones that are tougher because you’re just constantly working, constantly working,” the perennial All-Defensive team contender added. “My foot speed is pretty much good enough to keep up with the majority of the smaller guys in the league, so I take those matchups as it being a challenge.”

Watch: Practice Report - Jan. 14

Whether it’s pin downs near the elbow, pick and roll actions or off-ball cuts, George is capable of tracking men that are his size all the way down to point guards if required. Against the Hawks, the Thunder will have a variety of players to keep track of, and all of them can shoot the three-point shot. In fact, Atlanta comes into the game attempting the 5th-most three-pointers in the league, with every player in the Hawks rotation averaging nearly 2-or-more three-point attempts per game. That’s why, alongside George, it’s been crucial to have Russell Westbrook and an emerging defensive ace, Terrance Ferguson.

“Ferg definitely helps with that, having another defender that can pick up those matchups and do a great job on them,” said George.

One of the players Ferguson, George and Westbrook will all certainly square up against will be Atlanta’s rookie point guard, Trae Young, who has shot only 28.9 percent from three this season but is coming off of a 26-point performance against the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. For the rebuilding Hawks it’s no surprise that Young is going through some typical rookie experiences, but the Thunder knows there’s a lot of talent in Atlanta waiting to break through.

“As all rookies, it’s not like college. It’s definitely an adjustment with the speed, the tempo, the size of guys and just everybody at (Young’s) matchup, at his position, are athletes,” George noted.

“(Young) is a hell of a player,” added Schröder. “He did some great things in college, and he’s just got to get consistent with everything. He’s going to be alright.”

1-on-1: Steven Adams

SHOOTAROUND NOTES

- The Thunder comes into the game forcing the most turnovers in the NBA, but the Hawks aren’t far behind at fifth in that category. The major difference between the squads in the giveaway department is that the Thunder ranks 17th in the league in turnovers, while the Hawks are dead last at 30th. In order to take advantage of that strength and weakness, the Thunder can’t shoot itself in the foot by acquiescing possession back to Atlanta tonight.

  • “We have to do a good job of taking care of the basketball. The last time we played against them we turned it over 20 times,” said Donovan.

- Schröder will be one of the vital playmakers for the Thunder tonight, as he is each game. Over the last five contests, Schröder has provided a dramatic up-tick in production in the second half, averaging 8.8 points on 50.1 percent shooting during those stretches by playing with his own tempo, utilizing hesitation dribbles and being crafty around the rim.

  • “I just try to stay aggressive, try to find the best option for the team and I think in the second half the last five games have been great for me. I just have to do it for 48 minutes,” said Schroder. When the pick and roll happens you just want to read the situation and then you gotta find the best solution.”

NEWS & NOTES

-       Steven Adams is currently towards the top of the Western Conference All-Star fan vote, and after gritting it out through a sprained ankle he’s continuing to show just how valuable he is to this Thunder squad. Over 40 percent of Adams’ field goal attempts and 37 percent of his points come in the first quarter of games, as the Thunder knows that in order to succeed, getting Adams going early is crucial.

  • “Steve is our anchor. Getting (Adams) the ball in the paint just establishes how we’re going to play. He sets the tone,” said George. “He’s starting to realize how good he can be and how good he is offensively. We’re finding him and Russ is staying on him about finishing plays, dunking plays and just being aggressive down in that paint.”

-       Since Dec. 28, the Thunder has played in 8 games and during that stretch Patrick Patterson has shot 10-of-22 from the three-point line, good for 45.5 percent. It’s a small sample as part of a long season, but it goes to show that keeping the faith and understanding that those same shots that were missing earlier would eventually fall was the correct attitude. That shot-making adds an extra dynamic to the Thunder’s reserve punch.

  • “We need that from (Patterson), and right now he’s hitting them,” said Schröder. “That’s really important for what we do, and especially for the second unit.”
  • “He’s shot the ball better and he’s played better. Pat holds himself to a high standard,” said Donovan. “It speaks to him and the expectation he has on himself.”

-       Tuesday night’s game marks the first time for Schröder to return to Atlanta since the Thunder traded for him this offseason. In his first five NBA seasons with the Hawks, Schröder averaged 12.9 points, 4.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game and this season in Oklahoma City he’s beating his career averages in points, rebounds and steals.

  • “Now I’m in Oklahoma, I just try to concentrate on my teammates and the organization, winning some games,” said Schröder. “Going back there, meeting my old teammates, old coaching staff, old front office people, it’s going to be a good day tomorrow.”
  • “Dennis, he did a lot of great things here. I know this place means a lot to him. He started his career here and invested a lot of time and was on some really good teams,” said Donovan. “I would believe the people here would have great respect for him in terms of his competitiveness, how hard he plays, how hard he works, and I do believe being around him for a short period of time, winning is the most important thing.”

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