No performance is going to be flawless, but the Thunder expects a certain level of play out of itself every night. Most nights, even in wins, Head Coach Billy Donovan and his squad will find something to bring to the surface prior to the next contest. For the most part this season, the Thunder’s biggest postgame search has been for consistency.
In the win on Monday against the Sacramento Kings, the Thunder played at its desired level for the final 30 minutes of play, but didn’t quite have the right pace to begin the first half. Against another sub-.500 team on Wednesday night in the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder knows it will play with effort and energy, but it is focused on bringing the right energy to the entire four quarters of play.
“We’re human. We’re not going to play perfect or play a certain way every night, but at the same time I think we can play better, longer, in my opinion. And play harder longer,” guard Raymond Felton said. “That’s something we have to work on as a team.”
The Lakers are a perfect opponent to test that mental concentration and stamina for the full 48 minutes, because they’re a young, run-and-gun kind of squad that is looking to push the pace and the envelope all night. With Lonzo Ball at the head of the attack and vibrant, bouncy forwards in Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, the Thunder will be pressed at every position to get back on defense, show a wall of defenders and close out properly on drives. Otherwise, the Lakers could have a slew of dunks on attacks to the rim.
“They’re going to run, they’re going to get the ball up and down the court. They’re a team that plays with confidence,” Felton explained. “You can’t look at their record because they can come in here and beat you at any time. We just have to go tomorrow night and take care of business like we did in LA, and I think we’ll be fine.”
“(We) have to be very disciplined with a lot of our coverages,” center Steven Adams noted. “They’ll make us pay if we’re not. Obviously we don’t take it easy on any team, but just being disciplined in those areas will be key.”
1-on-1: Patrick Patterson
The rookie point guard Ball didn’t play in the first matchup between these two teams in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, and the Thunder insists that he changes the game for the Lakers when he’s out there. He and Ingram are questionable for tonight's game, but Ball's stats are certainly interesting for a rookie – 10.2 points, 7.1 assists, 7.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, but just 35.6 percent shooting and 30.3 percent shooting from the three-point line. With some finishers around him, the more important task for Ball isn’t scoring however, it’s the way he gets the offense flowing. It’ll be up to the Thunder to make him play in crowds to pressure him and force him into miscues.
“He’s got a really good feel of how to play, obviously. He’s a terrific passer,” Donovan said of Ball. “He’s a really good kick-ahead guy. I think he’s got good speed with the ball that he can generate penetration and when he does, he can see real well.”
- The Thunder’s second unit comprised of some combination of Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis and Patrick Patterson has performed at a high level this season, and once again came through in the fourth quarter for the Thunder against Sacramento. The key cog for the group has been Felton, whose performances as a hounding defender, distributor on offense and crafty scorer have been a big help. Even without any of the Thunder’s starters in that group, Donovan is confident that unit can be effective if necessary.
- “This is probably one of the most comfortable situations in a long time,” Felton said. “I’m comfortable with this team. I’m comfortable with this staff. Just being in a comfort zone, that makes a whole lot of difference.”
- “I do think that those guys can sustain running really good offense, and I do think those guys can sustain guarding,” Donovan added.
- On Monday against the Kings, Carmelo Anthony didn’t have an extremely efficient shooting night, but he made four three-pointers, on 11 attempts. For the Thunder, getting that many three-point shots from one of the best scorers in NBA history is a win. Most of those threes are coming as catch-and-shoot jumpers, and the best ones have been when Anthony is the trail man, running into the play from behind where he can measure and fire without anyone contesting.
- “If we can get him 10-plus 3s a game, we’ll take that,” Donovan said. “A lot of times defensively, he’s gonna be on the back line defensively, so he’s trailing into plays quite a bit. I think when he is trailing, we’ve got to recognize that. Especially when teams are loaded up in the paint trying to take away dribble penetration, drives.”
- One of the things that opened up for the Thunder against Sacramento because of Anthony’s prolific shooting were some backdoor lobs for players like Adams. On one such play, Adams faked like he was going to set a pin down screen at the elbow for Anthony, and when the Kings overplayed it to deny Anthony the catch, Adams cut hard to the rim and slammed down an alley-oop dunk. On Tuesday, he explained that was just a read between himself and Westbrook.
- “You’re just running your play and you see how they’re defending it,” Adams explained. “You don’t have to capitalize on it straight away. We noticed that early that they were jumping out on our shooters when you set a pindown. We just waited honestly, and that was the timing of it to use it then.”