Be Assertive, Protect the Paint – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC vs. UTA Game 1

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 5:30 p.m. CT
  • Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

There’s a buzz around the team, maybe just a feeling the floats in the air this time of year. The Thunder will be the second to last game played on the 2018 NBA Playoffs opening weekend, so the anticipation is mounting, and the excitement building as it prepares for its Game 1 showdown against division rival Utah Jazz in the first round.

It’ll take incredible effort, hustle and cohesion, but the Thunder is ready to put its best foot forward and strike first in the series.

“This time of year, everyone is obviously playing for one goal,” All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook began. “We just have to do our job and take care of home court.”

“This is what it’s about, this moment right here,” fellow All-Star Paul George added. “We’ve got to set the tempo early. But we know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to throw out what the record was regular season. We played fairly well against them. We’ve got to throw that out and create a new moment.”

The Thunder ripped off three straight wins to conclude the regular season, leapfrogging a group of 6 teams jockeying for the final five slots in the Western Conference standings to land the fourth seed, and home court advantage in the first round. But now comes the matchup with the blistering hot Jazz, who have only lost six games since the start of February. As a result, Head Coach Billy Donovan and his staff have put together a long list of things their team must do well in order to come away victorious.

“Attention to detail, blocking out, making everything tough, playing physical, being aggressive,” George said.

The revelation at guard for the Jazz has been rookie Donovan Mitchell, who led the team in scoring this season at 20.5 points per game, while shooting 34.0 percent from three and dishing out 3.7 assists. Mitchell can attack downhill in the open floor and also penetrate to kick to teammates. While George will likely get much of the Mitchell assignment, other Thunder guards and wings will need to work in tandem with big men like Steven Adams in order to get the job done.

“You have to get back in transition. You’ve got to be early in your pick-and-roll coverage, communicating and talking,” Donovan added. “On pick and rolls, it’s the responsibility of guarding the big and working together. (Mitchell) a really good attacking guard in the open floor and in transition. Obviously with the way he can shoot it, I think his strength and physicality. He does a lot of different things for them in transition and in half court, while also creating for himself.”

If it’s not Mitchell hoisting the shots from the perimeter, it’s likely Joe Ingles who is catching and firing from deep. The Australian forward has knocked down 44 percent of his three-point attempts this season, and has also been effective as a playmaker. He’s the prime example of where the Thunder must lock in during this series – the way it closes out on three-point shooters, particularly in the corners, to prevent wide open looks, while also closing off potential driving lanes.

“We’ve got to play really good team defense just because they’ve got, at any given time, five really skilled players on the floor,” Donovan said. “Playing against (Ingles) with his size and his length and his vision and his ability to see, it’s a lot more than just running him off the 3-point line. If you start running him off the 3-point line, he’s a really good creator too.”

“When we are in rotations, we have to communicate well,” Donovan continued. “And generally, when there’s penetration and your in scramble and rotations that’s probably when you’re most vulnerable to corner 3s.”

The Thunder’s main focus heading into the series is clearly its defense, which is no surprise. When Donovan’s club has defended well this season, it has had great success. In fact, the Thunder is 40-20 this year when holding its opponent to under 50 percent shooting, 31-14 when scoring at least the same number of points in the paint and 34-22 when its bench matches or beats the production of the opposing reserve unit.

For the season, Utah has the second best defensive rating in the league, just one tenth of a point behind the Boston Celtics. The defensive scheme is solid, and predicated on a drop coverage by 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert, who lays in wait near the rim on pick and rolls. By using his length both to deny the driver and the roll man of opportunities at the bucket, Gobert and the Jazz often force opponents into midrange jumpers. The Thunder has a handful of players who shoot them at a high percentage, and though they don’t want to take a ton of them, Donovan’s group will need to be confident and assertive when taking what the defense gives.

“Whether we shoot it or shouldn’t shoot it or play at the rim, you’ve just got to be decisive on it,” George said. “You always got to be on your toes. You always got to be ready for the next play. You got to be ready for the adjustments. I’ve been through this. We got countless guys that have been through that. This is where the experience will play a huge factor.”

Watch: Practice Rundown - April 14, 2018

Thunder Notes & Quotes

- Both Alex Abrines (concussion) and Corey Brewer (knee sprain) did more on Saturday at practice than they did on Friday, but while Abrines did not participate in any contact, Brewer was able to go through some contact drills. Their statuses for Sunday evening are undetermined at this point.

- There’s a loose air around the Thunder team heading into the postseason, a joy to be playing at the highest level against elite competition. This will be Thunder fans’ first glimpse at seeing some of the team’s first-year players like George, Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson and Terrance Ferguson called upon when the lights are brightest. George, who noted that he’ll likely guard Mitchell or Utah’s best perimeter player when he’s on the court, teased that Oklahomans should be as excited as he is about Sunday’s start to the postseason.

  • “Y’all ain’t met Playoff P yet, huh?” George mused. “I’m used to these matchups. I’m used to playing against the bests offensive guy in these moments. That’ll be my role.”

- While Westbrook will always be the leader of the pack for the Thunder, he and the rest of the team recognize that certain players and matchups will always be critical in each competitive contest. For the Thunder, one such player is Steven Adams, particularly with regard to Gobert and how the Jazz utilize him. Ironically, both players perform similar functions for their squads. On defense, Adams will have to be cognizant of lobs over the top to Gobert, and the way his screens can spring ballhandlers for forays into the lane. Sound familiar? That’s exactly the type of production the Thunder will need from Adams on offense, in addition to sound paint protection.

  • “(Adams’) physicality that he brings to the game and a lot of things that don’t show on the stat sheet,” Westbrook said. “Just his presence in general is huge.”
  • “Both players are really, really critical to both teams,” Donovan said of Adams and Gobert. “Their styles and their games are a little bit different but they both maybe do a lot of the same things for both teams.”

Lock in, let loose. #ItsComing

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