All Hands on Deck: Thunder Players Must Be Ready for Action – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at SAC

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 9:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

SACRAMENTO – Being ready and staying vigilant are skills. In the NBA, any advantage can be the edge that determines winning and losing. With games that come every 48 hours or so, every player on the Thunder roster is prepared to play their role, particularly when the team has uncertainty as it currently does in regard to player availability.

As of Sunday afternoon, Russell Westbrook and Terrance Ferguson are still not with the team due to personal reasons. Alex Abrines did participate in non-contact portions of practice on Saturday in Phoenix. Andre Roberson remains out. As the Thunder turns the page from its 110-100 victory over the Suns to squaring off against the Sacramento Kings, the message remains the same: come in and do your job, and the rest will take care of itself.

“We talked about being professional and being ready to do a job,” Head Coach Billy Donovan explained. “I have a very, very close-knit group of players. They have great relationships. Anytime someone is away from the team there’s always a concern but you have to be able to put that behind you and be able to go out and do your job.”

The Thunder has won 10 of its last 11 games, including 3 straight total and 4 of its last 5 on the road, but heading into Thanksgiving week the team recognizes that it has a chance to build further on its number in the win column and put some victories in the bank. There’s also an element of urgency against the Kings team, who came into Oklahoma City and spoiled the Thunder’s home opener back in October.

Watch: Jerami Grant in SAC

Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox has been a revelation at the point guard spot, shooting above 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from the three-point line in this young season. With the spacing provided by Buddy Hield and Nemanja Bjelica, wide berths have been given by opponents to let big men like Willi Cauley-Stein and Marvin Bagley put pressure on the rim with rolls to the bucket. In order to continue its top-three ranking in defensive efficiency.  

“We gotta load up. We know they like to get to the basket,” said forward Jerami Grant. “We just gotta get back, load quick and get out to the three after.”

“A big part is going to be getting back in transition,” added Donovan. “With Bagley and (Harry) Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein they have guys who are good rollers and guys who are good around the backboard and on the glass. We’ll have to get back and get our defense set. When you don’t and you help and shots go up, that’s where they’re able to exploit you on the backboard.”

The term loading up in and of itself is basketball’s version of “staying ready” on the defensive end of the floor. It means being in position ahead of time, being prepared for the opposition’s upcoming play call and providing support for teammates who may get beat. That preparedness must be there beyond just a play-by-play perspective, but also on the macro level. In each NBA game, both teams are bound to go on hot streaks. It’s up to the Thunder to quell those Kings bursts by snagging the ball out of the net quickly, flowing up the court and getting into precise, crisp offense to quiet the crowd and stunt the momentum.

“We talk about it. You have to accept the fact that there are going to be runs in games,” said Donovan. “You can run beautiful offense and you miss shots. You can play great defense and they make shots. There are going to be swings in games.”

“When somebody gets momentum, they’re generally the aggressor. One of the things we’ve talked about is, how do you stop that?” Donovan continued. “Our guys have done a good job of playing with speed, pace and tempo and getting the ball up the floor.”

In ways it might not have last season, the Thunder has had answers for opponents lately, and must do so again on Monday at the Golden One Center. One of the reasons the Thunder was able to close out the victory over the Suns on Saturday was the readiness of Thunder reserves.

"We're just staying focused. We're not taking a step back. We're staying calm when we are being attacked," said forward Patrick Patterson. "The guys this year are doing a lot better job of taking a deep breath and staying with the game plan."

Being able to come in and find a rhythm, understand personnel and play with toughness isn’t always easy when you haven’t played significant minutes in weeks, but that’s precisely what Thunder guard Tim Luwawu-Cabarrot did against Phoenix. He ended up playing 25 minutes, scoring 12 points and closing the game in crunch time because of his active defense and aggressiveness on offense.

“We were getting two things from him – we were getting good defense and good offense – and we just decided to go with him coming down the stretch there,” said Donovan.  

 “It’s a really tough thing, especially for our defense and the type of defense that we run for a player who hasn’t played in a minute to come out and still run the coverages very well,” added center Steven Adams. “It’s a very difficult thing to do. But he came in and executed all of the coverages correctly.”

Yet against the Kings, depending on which Thunder players are or are not with the team, Luwawu-Cabarrot may not be back in the rotation. Either way, he’ll be just as active in film sessions, in the locker room and with his voice on the bench. After all, Luwawu-Cabarrot and his fellow reserves never know when a change in the game could require their presence in an instant.

“I always have been a guy who has liked to talk. Maybe not my first year when my English wasn’t great,” the Frenchman grinned. “Even if I don’t play I have to be involved in something so I yell and am behind my brothers.”

Shootaround Notes

- Russell Westbrook was back with the team after leaving to attend to his wife Nina and the birth of his twin girls, Jordyn and Skye. His status, along with the status of Alex Abrines (illness) will be determined at gametime. Terrance Ferguson is not with the team while still attending to a personal matter.

- The Thunder struggled out of the gates at the free throw line, but over the past three games Donovan’s club has the best free throw percentage in the league at 87.5 percent. Part of the reason has been the amount of time and the way the Thunder has been practicing free throws – making it more like true game situations and raising the stakes a bit to put more pressure on the shots.

  • “Anytime you have opportunities to score, you want to be able to be efficient,” said Donovan. “When you get fouled a lot, you don’t want to leave points on the board.”

News & Notes

-        One of the catalysts for the Thunder during this elongated winning stretch has been Jerami Grant, the ultra-flexible forward who does a little bit of everything as the team’s Swiss Army Knife. Grant has scored in double figures in all 12 of his starts this season, beginning with the fourth game of the season against the Celtics. In the month of November, Grant is shooting 46.2 percent from the three-point line and 56 percent overall. He’s also been able to make plays for his teammates, like the three assists he dished out against the Suns, including a slick behind the back dish to Steven Adams.

  • “We moved around some things offensively in terms of spacing, in terms of where to get (Grant),” explained Donovan. “Getting him down to the baseline and getting him into the corners, allowing him to drive from the corner, allowing him to play at the dunker spot is better. We’ve tried to do some things with him to try to get him to those spots so he can play to his strengths.”

-        In a league that’s heading more and more out to the three-point line, the Thunder has been manufacturing spacing by getting to the bucket. Grant’s rolls to the rim or slashes underneath the cup get part of the job done, but Donovan has also created openings by sending the ball into Steven Adams in the deep post. From there, the Thunder center can keep an eye out for cutters and shooters relocating while also abusing single coverage on the block.

  • “Steven has a really good feel. He’s a bright, smart player and he at times can see what’s going on and what he needs to do,” Donovan said. “If Russell or Dennis or Paul are going really well, he’s not going to inject himself into that. But when they need him rolling and posting up and doing different things, he’ll do whatever he can for the team.”  
  • “When he gets good post position and is physical down there, he’s going to get to good spots on the floor,” Donovan continued. “It’s another playmaker so to speak that can generate offense for you.”