- Tip-off: 8:30 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Returning from the All-Star Break, the Thunder hopes that it is much closer to the alleged “halfway point” of its own season than what the remaining regular season schedule suggests. There’s just 25 games left on the Thunder’s home-and-away slate, but if a deep playoff run is in its cards, this past week could be the last big gasp of breath for this team before wading back into the water for a battle that dips into June.
Those postseason tests can be worried about on a later date, however, because the most important fixture on the calendar comes with each passing day. The next one up is the division rival Utah Jazz, the same one that knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs last season yet the Thunder has beaten twice so far this year. In order to take care of business, and to set a tone for the remainder of the year, the Thunder must approach this one the right way.
“Just get better, every game, one game at a time, just build some consistency and just start to get into shape for going down into playoff time,” said George. “That’s really what we’re looking at it as. Every game we’ve got to make strides and improve to where we’re the best version of ourselves come mid-April, late-April.”
There will be a bit of newness as the Thunder hits the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday against the Jazz and on Saturday against the Sacramento Kings. The addition of Markieff Morris should only enhance, not disrupt, the Thunder flow which saw the team win 11 of 13 games heading into the All-Star Break and rise to just two games back of second place in the Western Conference and four back of first place.
The addition of Morris should bolster the Thunder frontcourt, which will be in for a test against the Jazz front line of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Between Jerami Grant, Steven Adams, Patrick Patterson and Morris, the Thunder should have plenty of depth and players with varied skill sets, to get the job done inside.
Watch: Morris After First Practice</strong
“Our front court – Jerami, Markieff, Patrick, those guys, even when we’ve put Paul there at the four some, those guys all give you flexibility to do a variety of different things from that position,” said Donovan.
In this matchup against the Jazz the Thunder will have to do an excellent job of getting back in transition defense, keeping crafty point guard Ricky Rubio in check and out of the lane and then closing out fully to three-point shooters on the perimeter. To finish off possessions the Thunder will have to play with incredible physicality to prevent Gobert and Favors from running up their backs for tip-ins and second chances.
On offense, the Thunder will need to play efficiently without coughing the ball up, but knows that this Jazz team is one of the best at taking teams out of their offense, limiting assists and denying both three-point attempts and putback opportunities. Nothing will come easy, nor can the Thunder allow Utah any rhythm-building moments either.
“They move the ball very well so you’re going to have to be able to give multiple efforts to get yourself back in plays,” said Donovan. “Defensively they’ve always been good with Gobert in a drop (coverage) protecting the rim and trying to make it difficult to score in the paint. So you’ve got to move the ball and you gotta make good decisions there.”
The x’s and o’s are vital, particularly in a tactical battle between Donovan and Utah head coach Quin Snyder. But there are other factors in play during every competitive event. The emotional and mental aspect of the game holds much sway over the outcome, and George understands that he and his teammates must be ready to arise from the week-long lay off with the right energy, effort, concentration and internal fire to re-ignite a win streak, and light a path to the home stretch.
“We know this team,” George said of Utah. “This is probably the best team we could have played coming out of the break just because of our series last year, and this is going to be a tough one. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row, but we’re up for the challenge. We’re ready to start this second half off right, get back into it. We know they’ve been playing better as of late, but this is a game that we’ve got to get to start the second half.”
Time to Get Hyped!
- Dennis Schröder returned to the Thunder after missing a pair of games before the All-Star Break due to the birth of his son, Dennis Malick Schröder, Jr. The break couldn’t have come at a more perfect time, as Schröder was able to spend over a week with his new family member.
- “The NBA is like a blessing, but when you get a kid, that’s the best thing in the world. I’m happy that everybody is healthy,” said Schröder. “I said when I get my baby, I’m going to bring my golden patch back. It’s on. I’ve got my swag back.”
- Schröder might be a new father but he’s no longer the new guy in the Thunder locker room with Morris in tow. The reserve point guard looked back at his entrance to Oklahoma City and realized that it was one week in when he felt like I had been here the whole season. He hopes and believes that Morris is going to feel the same way as the team welcomes him in this weekend.
- “In our locker room it doesn’t matter who comes in, everybody has a great relationship and everybody tries to get along with each other,” said Schröder. “It’s been like he’s been with us all season already. Everybody is joking with him already. I think he feels comfortable. We’ll see tonight how we’re going to be on the floor with him and we’ll go from there.”
1-on-1: Jerami Grant
NEWS & NOTES
- Jerami Grant and Dennis Schröder were both full participants at practice on Thursday, as was everyone else on the Thunder roster aside from Andre Roberson, who is still rehabbing from a setback he faced in his recovery from a ruptured patellar tendon. The Thunder staff is maintaining a level of optimism that Roberson might be able to return this season but there is no timetable as of yet.
- One of Roberson’s best friends, Steven Adams, has already made quite the impression on the Thunder’s incoming forward, Morris. Both are very physical players, but this is the first time Morris has gotten to see Adams’ unique and vibrant personality up close. It should be a treat to watch those two get some minutes alongside or in tandem with one another.
- “He’s goofy,” chuckled Morris. “He’s a big guy. You think he’s a lot older than you think he is, but he’s a young guy. He’s always been one of the strongest guys I’ve ever played against, and I’m excited to have a big guy like that to bang with.”