- Tip-off: 11:30 a.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
NEW YORK – Every time that the Thunder steps on the floor, there’s a level of pride that swells up to help the team deliver its best, representing the “Oklahoma City” printed on the front of the jersey. For nearly the entire time the team has been in Oklahoma, it has had the honor to play on Christmas Day, and the team has had countless opportunities on national television. But on Monday afternoon there will be a different kind of pride as the Thunder heads to Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Knicks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“It is a blessing man,” said Russell Westbrook. “To play on a special day, a special man that changed the world forever that we live in is an unbelievable honor. It is a blessing. I am definitely honored to be able to do that. Especially doing something I love to do.”
The Thunder is already riding a high coming in off of a dramatic last-second victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, when Paul George completed a four-point play after a made three and a foul with 5 seconds to go. George scored 31 points in the game, including 14 in the fourth quarter, to cap a wild finish and bring the Thunder up to 27-18 on the season, 4.5 games out of first place in the Western Conference. All season long, George has dazzled for the Thunder, scoring off of drives with either hand and hitting 38.6 percent of his career-high 8.9 three-point attemtps per game.
“(George) has an incredible ability left or right to create separation. You think he’s shooting and then all the sudden he hits that escape dribble away from you and still gets it off with his length,” said Donovan. “That’s why he is who he is as a player.”
“My job is to be a ballplayer, and I know what comes with it. You make shots, you miss shots,” said George. “I’m going to shoot it with confidence.”
An area where George wants to continue to improve, and hopes to utilize in Monday’s game against the Knicks, is his mid-range game. Over the years that has been one of George’s most prolific spots to shoot on the floor.
This season, around 35 percent of George’s shots have come between 3 and 22 feet, from just outside the restricted area out to the three-point line. He’s shooting a career-best 44.9 percent on shots from 10-to-16 feet, and 39.4 percent on shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. If opponents like the Knicks are going to pack the paint to protect the rim and close out hard to the arc, George can have a field day in at the elbow areas.
“I just gotta find my rhythm in the mid-range area. I get caught a lot of times playing down and teams are collapsing and I’m trying to finish over bodies,” said George. “I can free myself for midrange shots. Just taking advantage of that, and knowing when I can get all the way to the rim.”
The man who consistently provides George with openings is Steven Adams, the burly Kiwi center who sets crushing screens that block out any chance for a defender to get back in front of George, Russell Westbrook or any other Thunder ball-handler. In return, both George and Westbrook have rewarded those screens with some beautiful lob passes for alley-oops, which Adams has flushed with authority.
“(Adams’) size, his body,” said Westbrook. “A guy like myself, I definitely don't take that for granted. Just happy and blessed, he's on our team.”
“When he’s got the ball, he’s such a threat to shoot the ball that what happens is the coverage has to move up a little closer to the screen,” Donvoan explained. “(It’s) harder for that guy to get back and it allows Steven to get behind the defense. Paul, with his size, does a good job of reading when Steven is behind the defense and when he can put it up to him.”
Lately the Thunder’s offense has been humming scoring over 117 points in each of the last six games. In order for the Thunder to have success against the Knicks and complete this holiday weekend sweep, however, the Thunder’s defense will have to stand tall. The Knicks are a young bunch who are attempting to play an up-tempo style with rookie Kevin Knox and young guards Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Allonzo Trier. To get a win, the Thunder’s defense will need to play together with focus and discipline for 48 minutes, balancing strong close outs to the perimeter with good contests, without fouling.
“Just getting out, closing out to the shooters, making it tough for them,” said Westbrook.
“That’s the key for us,” added George. “Force them to beat us with a tough one.”
NEWS & NOTES
- Terrance Ferguson hit a huge shot down the stretch against Philadelphia, another make from three that is adding to barrage he’s created for the Thunder lately. Since a rough shooting start to the season, Ferguson’s percentages have increased exponentially from 33.3 percent in November to 36.7 percent in December to an incredible 49.0 percent so far in January from behind the arc.
- “Just shoot the ball without thinking. As soon as the ball touches my hand, it’s going up,” said Ferguson. “My teammates have so much confidence in me.”
- Part of the reason for Ferguson’s growing three-point marksmanship is the trust the Thunder is showing one other on the floor. Playmakers are creating open looks for everyone and completely buying into finding the best shot, no matter who is taking it. Over time, that confidence permeates through each guy who touches the ball.
- “It’s a good thing that these guys are doing that,” Donovan said of the on-court trust. “Russell has made passes at the end of games to Alex (Abrines) and to Terrance and to Jerami (Grant) and to different players. They realize that everybody needs everybody.”
- “When people are really coming after Paul or Russell and are hanging on those guys, we gotta make the right play,” Donovan continued. “That’s how guys’ confidence gets built. That’s what you gotta try to do, generate good looks, good shots. When you do that, you gotta live with the results.”
- On Saturday, Donovan made sure to match Adams and Ferguson’s minutes, respectively, with 76ers players Joel Embiid and JJ Redick. Much like he’s done by getting creative with the timing of George and Westbrook’s court time and other substitutions, Donovan showed some crucial flexibility against a high-level opponent. Moving forward, keep an eye on other moments when Donovan leverages the talent he has to maximize what the team gets done against the opposition’s best performers.
- “For us to keep Steven, Dennis (Schröder), Paul, Russell on the floor, rotating and moving those guys around is important,” said Donovan.
- “Ferg’s got the legs, got the energy. You want to put your youthful guys on the guys that do all that running. That’s not my job anymore,” George joked. “(Adams) did a really good job of moving his feet, staying in front, staying down and forcing him to play over the top.”