All the Pieces Matter – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at UTA

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

SALT LAKE CITY – You’re still buzzing about Russell Westbrook’s game-winning three-pointer on Friday night, so you’d have to forgive the Thunder for still lingering over such a happy memory for a little bit longer.

But with such a quick turnaround before the Thunder takes on the Utah Jazz for the second time in four days and the fourth time in 33 games, the reason Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club is reminiscing a bit to last night is because of the way their point guard was able to knock down that three-ball. To set up the play, Steven Adams set a screen to free up Westbrook, then Paul George executed a perfectly-timed cut across the face of Westbrook’s defender.

That tiny moment of uncertainty that George’s full-force, decisive and unexpected cut caused for the Atlanta defense was enough to give Westbrook the shooting window he needed to take an on-balance shot. The set-up served as a lesson: the details matter so much, and something as small as a cut can make the difference between a win and a loss. George explained that buying into that type of player movement can get the defense out of sorts for just enough time to make a play.

“I’m happy that we got an open look off that. We got a great shot off that,” George said. “We’ll live and die with whoever takes that shot.”

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Whether it is George or Roberson flashing all over the floor to tear the defense apart with their off-ball movement, Steven Adams setting hard screens and rolling hard down the lane, Westbrook attacking downhill or Carmelo Anthony stalking the perimeter to create passing angles for teammates to find him for threes, the Thunder must operate at a high level offensively again tonight against the Jazz. Winning on the second night of a home-road back-to-back while battling icy and snowy travel conditions isn’t an easy task, but Donovan and company are encouraged by the progress the entire team is making.

“Offensively we’re moving closer and closer to being a more efficient team,” Donovan said.

“It’s just being patient with this whole process,” Anthony added. “It’s something that we’re going to continue getting better at and as long as we work at it, things will get better.”

On Wednesday the Thunder blasted the Jazz 107-79, putting together a full 48 minutes on both sides of the ball. Utah was without rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell and defensive anchor Rudy Gobert both for that game and their home win the next night over the San Antonio Spurs. In order to dispatch of its Northwest Division rival and to win the season series against the Jazz, the Thunder will have to find a way to match, or even surpass the level of energy and intensity that it played with on Wednesday.

One way to get a jolt is to continue finding Anthony in the type of situations where he can really thrive within this group: catch-and-shoot opportunities from behind the three-point line. On Friday, Anthony knocked down 7-of-12 three-point shots for 24 points against Atlanta. Over the past few weeks, the future Hall of Famer’s adjustment process to the dramatically different role he has to play in Oklahoma City has become easier. Seeing a breakthrough in such strong fashion over the past two games has the group feeling positively about how the pieces are falling into place.

“He’s one of the best in the league and statistically over his career at catch-and-shoot. He’s definitely a weapon,” George said. “I know it’s different for him. He’s been so used to midrange and playing off the block and elbows but he’s a huge threat off catch and shoot.”

“Just talking, communication, watching film, coach figuring out what this team really needs from myself. I said something back in New York about we all need to figure out what our roles are on the team,” Anthony noted. “I think I figured out what my role would be.”

Nick's Notebook

- Anthony’s commitment to the team and playing to the identity Donovan wants to foster isn’t just lip service. In recent days and weeks, Anthony has noticed areas where he has to improve in order to play the type of role the Thunder needs from him. Specifically, Anthony described that he’s had to learn a new type of footwork and sharpen his timing and rhythm based on the way passes are being delivered to him within the flow of the offense. As he continues to hone that skill, the adaptable Anthony will become even more of a threat for the Thunder.

  • “I thought my footwork was second nature until I got here,” Anthony chuckled. “It’s something I continue to work on in practice and after practice, watching film and just studying where I get the ball at, how I get the ball, the timing of receiving the basketball when you get it. It’s a lot of things that goes into that shot rather than just catching it and shooting. You have to be ready, you have to be prepared. You have to know the timing. You have to have that eye contact, that connection with Russell and everybody else out there on the court.”
  • “It’s a different type of footwork that you have to have coming off of those pick and pops. With Russ coming so fast downhill you gotta be ready,” Anthony added. “You just never know what’s going to happen, when you’re going to get the ball. Your footwork, you have to be ready at all times with that.”

- There’s been one massive difference for the Thunder’s point guard and leader over the past four games. His mid-range jumper is finally falling. Between 10 and 19 feet, Westbrook has made 19-of-32 (59.4 percent) of his attempts since regaining his shooting stroke in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. The results have dramatically impacted the rest of his scoring and playmaking, as he’s shooting 61.8 percent starting on Dec. 16, compared with just 41.1 percent on the season as a whole, including 67-for-191 from 10-to-19 feet (35.1 percent). After Friday’s win, Donovan described the significance of that midrange shot, even if it’s not the most efficient one in the game.

  • “They just back up to absorb the drive. If you don’t show that you can consistently make that elbow jumper or 15-footer, you become easier to guard,” Donovan explained. “He’s really done a great job of being on balance and shooting the ball.”

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