Hands Off: Thunder Aims for Disciplined Defense Against Jazz – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at UTA

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 8:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

SALT LAKE CITY – In the course of 48 hours, the Thunder played two games down to the wire, one win and one loss, that were decided by a total of 16 points. In those two battles, the Thunder allowed the opposition to take a combined 93 free throws – 47 for the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday and 46 for the LA Clippers on Friday night. To Head Coach Billy Donovan, this is a trend that has to stop, now.

With the Thunder’s four-game Western Conference road swing concluding on Monday night in Salt Lake City with a matchup against the Utah Jazz, Donovan’s club will have to be hands off in the right moments to prevent another march to the line from players like Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.

“A lot of it is based on decisions. There are going to be times where there is a drive, there’s contact at the basket and you’re going to foul,” Donovan began. “The ones we’re committing is there’s a post entry pass and we’re trying to reach and try to go around and deflect or steal it. There’s a pass out at 35 feet and we’re pressuring a guy. We don’t need to be doing that.”

Against the Clippers, the Thunder picked up 5 fouls in the first three minutes of the first quarter, getting into the bonus so early that it was nearly impossible to play defense at a high level for the remainder of the period, for fear that every subsequent play with physical contact might result in two free throws for LA. With a hard-driving guard in Mitchell and imposing presences inside in Gobert and Favors, the Thunder will already have its hands full, and doesn’t need to add an extra burden with silly fouls away from the ball or far from the hoop.

There are, however, other instances within the physical nature of the game that the Thunder will have to shore up. With as many pick and rolls that are run in each game, the Thunder is bound to be caught in scenarios where players must decide whether to switch or stay on their own defensive assignment. That can cause confusion, a player being a step slow or a size mismatch.

“Some of it is, what is the opportunity of the guy that was on the ball getting back on the ball?” Donovan asked rhetorically.  

With the versatility on this Thunder roster, it’s not always a bad thing to have a mismatch. Steven Adams, Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel and Markieff Morris all have the ability to defend multiple positions and provide some length when guarding smaller players. The difficult decisions come on the flip side of that situation, when a point guard is trying to corral a center. Russell Westbrook is one of, if not the best, guard in the NBA at battling a big man on the block, either battling behind him to force the catch further out on the floor or by digging in just in front of the assignment, preventing an entry pass from even being delivered.

The decisions for guards, however, aren’t precise, but against Gobert and Favors they might be absolutely vital to the team’s success. Limiting the productivity of Utah’s two traditional big men could hamstring Utah into becoming a team pinned to the perimeter and forced to hoist shots over outstretched arms. That’s only possible, however, if the Thunder limits the number of small-on-big switches it has to make. If Westbrook, Dennis Schröder or Terrance Ferguson are caught in those switches, it’s all about timing and court awareness.

“It all depends on where the guy is located. If a guy is posted up in the short corner, baseline area and he’s out towards the three-point line, you don’t want to front that high, there’s too much room on the back side,” Donovan explained. “If there’s a situation where a guy is rolling to the basket and he’s in the paint, you can’t stand behind him there, you gotta get around and front.”

“Can you get the guy off the lane line and get him off the block area? If you can’t you’re probably going to need to front him,” Donovan continued. “If you front too early you give up high-low passes and you give up offensive rebounds. So sometimes being able to get back behind is not bad, and to let help come.”

Watch: Practice Report


-       While Schröder hasn’t shot the ball well lately, just 32 percent from the field since the All-Star Break, he’s still contributing in other ways like the aforementioned defensive activity and by playmaking for teammates. Since the break, Schröder is averaging 5 assists per game, up from his 4.2 mark throughout the season. After missing some time right before the break to tend to the birth of his son, Dennis, Jr. the new dad is still looking for a rhythm on his shot but that doesn’t define his impact on the group.

  • “(Schröder) has defended well and he’s done some good things,” Donovan said. “He just has to make sure he’s taking good shots, taking the right shots. We need him to defend. We need him to be a playmaker. We need him to run our offense. If he does that, that’s fine, he’ll get back into a rhythm shooting the ball like he’s capable of.”

-       During the road trip, but particularly in Portland and Los Angeles, the Thunder’s reserves stepped up a level and provided some much-needed force for a starting group that has racked up some minutes in overtime games lately. One player who has stood out is Nerlens Noel, who over the last two games scored 12 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, dished out 2 assists, made 2 steals and 3 blocks in just 30 total minutes.

  • “(Nerlens) is very active and he shot blocks,” said Donovan. “When he gets his athleticism and his speed and his length into the game like he did against the Clippers, generally it helps us get out in transition and makes the game a little bit easier. He does a lot of things to impact the game.”

-       The Thunder’s second unit will now have some more full-time depth, yet another option for Donovan to utilize moving forward as the Thunder announced on Sunday afternoon that it converted Deonte Burton’s Two-Way Contract to an NBA contract. So far with the Thunder, the burly yet agile Burton has captured the attention of fans with his springiness and energy and has also shown flashes of ballhandling, playmaking and defensive ability. This season in 23 games he’s averaged 3.1 points and 1.0 rebounds in 8.7 minutes, but he’s also played 24 games with the Oklahoma City Blue, where he’s averaged 16.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals in 29.8 minutes per contest.

  • “(Burton’s) work ethic, that’s been encouraging to me- his eagerness and willingness to want to learn and grow and get better,” said Donovan. “The organization has made a really strong commitment to help him from the summer. He’s done a great job with his nutrition. He’s done a great job in terms of learning a couple different positions, the small forward and power forward spot.”
  • “I’m excited about him,” Donovan continued. “I think he can do a lot of different things for our team and will be able to help us in some different ways. It’s good that he’s gotten some minutes with the team and that he’s been out there in some crucial situations.”