Bring the Physicality and the Force – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at UTA Game 4

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 9:30 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

SALT LAKE CITY – When Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio rushes around a screen at the top of the key late Monday night, the Thunder want him to see something he didn’t see on Saturday. Preferably, that would be a defender right in his face.

Down 2-1 in this first round Western Conference battle with the Jazz, the Thunder is approaching Game 4 with balance. There’s an understanding of how vital this game is to keeping the season alive and regaining homecourt advantage. Yet there’s also a need to keep an even keel and maintain the looseness required to play freely.

That flow, however, is exactly what the Thunder is determined to take away from the Jazz, and it starts at the point of attack at the top of the key.

“We gotta control the ball more,” forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We’re letting them free flow a little bit offensively. When they have the ball, they get into the teeth of the defense and it breaks everything down from there. So I think once we get control of the ball and then from there we’re back to our principles on the defensive end.”

Whether it’s Russell Westbrook or Raymond Felton on Rubio, Corey Brewer or Paul George on Donovan Mitchell or any other matchup, the Thunder wants to force the action over the top of the screen and get back into position in front of the ballhandler. That requires communication with the defenders in the lane, and an elevated level of quickness and toughness.

“In pick-and-roll coverage it takes two people. It takes the guard and the big working together,” Donovan said. “Any time you’re dealing with a good player who’s a playmaker, a ball handler and a creator, the more space and room he has in certain situation, the better player they become.”

“There’s a level of physicality that goes into all that stuff whether it’s getting over a screen or getting over a pick and roll,” Donovan continued. “You want to be able to play with force in those situations.”

Shutting off those angles into the lane for Rubio can relieve a lot of the stress for the Thunder’s defense, which allowed the Jazz to shoot 52.5 percent in Game 3. It wasn’t just Rubio’s shotmaking in the midrange (where he accounted for more than half of the Jazz’s nine makes), but the simple offense that resulted from his dribble drives that hurt the Thunder on Saturday.

Easy dump off passes to rolling big men, skip passes to the corner or 2-on-1 situations on the backside are all offshoots that arise after penetration, and the Thunder is aiming to do better on all fronts. It starts on the ball and at the level of the screen, but the decision-making, technique and timing on the backside make the difference between whether help is on time or not.

“We’ve got to rotate better. We’ve got to do a better job of slowing the ball down,” Donovan said. “When you’re playing defense, it’s not just the end result … It’s a lot of things leading up to that you’ve got to do better.”

“We’ve gotta do it with more force. We have to be more aggressive with it. That requires a lot of effort and it requires a lot of intensity and it requires a lot of work,” Donovan added. “There’s no getting around those kind of things.”

For the Thunder, offense will come much easier if it can close off the valve to high percentage offense for Utah. On the road, in a hostile environment where the fans are right on top of the action, the Thunder will need to have the grit, toughness and perseverance to withstand runs. Tying up the series at 2-2 is critical before heading back to Game 5 in Oklahoma City, and the only way to do that is grind out every possession, with connectedness, as a team.

“We understand what that game means to us. We understand what that game means to them,” Anthony said. “Now it’s an opportunity for us to go get our game back that we gave up on our home court. Yesterday they did what they have to do. They won on their home court. Now we have an opportunity to go get a win.”

Thunder Notes & Quotes

- When the Thunder does get into the offensive halfcourt, it is intent on being more decisive with the ball and committing fewer turnovers. The giveaways the Thunder made on Saturday resulted in transition opportunities for Utah, and many of them stemmed from getting caught in between decisions to shoot, pass or put the ball on the floor. Something that will aid the Thunder in Game 4 would be forcing the Jazz to defend multiple actions for longer stretches of the shot clock. Getting the defense loosened up will carve out the extra space needed to create high percentage shots.

  • “With (Rudy) Gobert being down there, I think we gotta get him moving a little bit more,” Anthony said.
  • “Because they are a good defensive team, we need more stamina for those kind of possessions,” Donovan said.

- One of the ways the Thunder managed to do that in Game 3 was by inserting Patrick Patterson in the lineup for Steven Adams early in the fourth quarter. The shooting Patterson provides forced Jazz center Rudy Gobert away from the rim, and allowed Russell Westbrook and Paul George to get into the middle of the floor. Donovan said he’d like to see Patterson hoist up a few more shots rather than try to make plays, but understands that the lengthy Jazz defense can cause shooting windows to close quickly.

  • “When it comes to a shooter you gotta kind of respect and trust when a guy feels like he’s in rhythm and ready to shoot the ball,” Donovan said. “You know it was good for us. We did some good things out of it.”
    • "It makes them scramble a little harder knowing that they’ve got to get out to (Patterson) because he’s gonna shoot it," said Paul George. "So, it puts a level of panic, I think, on the defense when they have another catch-and-shoot guy out there."

    - Donovan admitted at practice on Sunday that his small-ball lineup with Patterson at the center spot probably played too many minutes in Game 3, but that was largely due to Steven Adams’ foul trouble. The burly Thunder center had three fouls in just 10 first half minutes, and that made a huge impact in the game, particularly the rebounding battle. It’s now been two straight games with Adams in foul trouble, and the big Kiwi says he needs to keep playing his game in order to be effective.

    • “You can’t ease up the aggressiveness,” Adams said.
    • “The more we can keep him out of rotations, the more we can keep him just protecting the paint, not in so much action where he has to be late getting back to the paint, the better," George said. "He’s really, really good when he’s in position. We’re giving him a hard time by having him out of position getting back into the play. So, it’s on us to keep him out of those rotations."

    Bring on Game 4.

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