- Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
ORLANDO -- A successful week at home down, a challenging week on the road ahead, the Thunder ships off to the East Coast with the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week in tow. After ripping off 31.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 56.8 percent from three over the last four contests, all Thunder wins, Paul George was honored by the NBA this week as the Thunder swept a Philadelphia-New York road trip and then three straight games at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Now with a three-game swing that starts in Orlando against the Magic, the dynamic Thunder forward will need to be just as sharp in order to extend this five-game win streak. George’s productivity on both ends of the floor throughout the 48 minutes will be a factor, but so will his clutch scoring, which he broke out against Milwaukee on Sunday. It’s been wildly impressive to see George thrive in every crucial aspect of the game, even with a heavy load he bears on both ends.
“(George) has got the patience and understands the length and time of the game and he just plays,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “To play at the level he plays at defensively and to play at the level he plays at offensively, he is unique. There are not many guys who do what he does in my opinion in the league playing both sides like that.”
“I don’t consider myself a good offensive player and I don’t consider myself a good defensive player, I just consider myself a good basketball player,” George noted. “I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna compete and that’s just what it comes down to. That’s really what measures a guy I think, is his level of competitiveness and is he willing to compete and competing comes with playing hard.”
George’s running mate Russell Westbrook has been a key catalyst in some complementary ways. In the last six games the Thunder is averaging 31.7 points in the first quarter, and has had six players in double figures for five straight games for 16 total such occasions on the season. Over the last 11 games, the Thunder is shooting 42.5 percent from three and has made at least 10 triples in 10 of its last 11 contests. Why all the stats? They’re emanating from the controlled aggressiveness with which Westbrook has orchestrated the offense from the opening tip off lately.
“What (Westbrook) is doing in terms of pushing the pace of play, getting guys shots, getting us playing fast, he’s doing really a lot of great things,” said Donovan. “It speaks to Russell as a point guard getting everybody involved and pushing the ball and trying to make the game easy for everybody else.”
“Our guys trust each other and it’s been really, really good to see that when guys are open, they’re passing the ball to the open man,” Donovan continued.
While the offense has been humming, it’ll be up to the Thunder’s defense to continue its re-emergence against the Magic to back up its swarming effort against the Bucks. While the Magic don’t shoot the ball particularly well from the three-point line and don’t get to the free throw line much, they do play a unique brand of basketball in this day and age: slow and steady.
Orlando plays at the fourth-slowest pace in the league, a smart strategy for a team that is 20-30 this season if it is an attempt to reduce the number of total possessions in the game, which in turn can eliminate the compounding effect of talent taking over during a 48-minute game.
Still, even with that slow-down game, the Thunder will need to be aware of drives to the paint by D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, who will set up shooters on the wing to launch three-pointers. The Magic take 31.3 three-pointers per 48 minutes, and 31.5 percent of its points come from behind the arc.
“When somebody drives and we have to give help and when the ball gets kicked out you are in rotations and scramble situations,” Donovan explained.
“It makes the switch easier, because I know someone is going backside to help me” said guard Terrance Ferguson added. “That’s the kind of defense we play; always have the next man’s back.”
While Orlando doesn’t score many points, it also doesn’t allow too many either, ranking right in the middle of the pack with a 107.1 defensive rating. More than anything, the impetus for the Thunder in this game is to not allow the Magic to play at their desired style and tempo. Instead, Donovan’s group will need to play with force, connection and mental stamina for all four quarters.
“As long as we’re communicating, we’re all on the same string, we’re able to play defense at a higher level,” said center Nerlens Noel. “Once we get on the break, it’s over. We have too many athletes that can do so many different things, and the leadership is second-to-none.”
“This road trip will not be easy at all,” said George, one of the leaders Noel referenced. “I’m glad we were able to have a good home stand and get ready for what’s to come.”
- The Magic may play at a slow pace in terms of possessions per game, but Donovan noted that the flip side of that is that when Orlando gets stopped in transition they are more than willing to force its opponent to sit down and defend for the full 24-second shot clock. In order to mitigate the compounding effects of that style, the Thunder will have to defensive rebound at a very high level.
- “(Their pace) is a little bit misleading because I do think they really try to fast break and try to score points in transition, but they’re a team that really does a great job of executing in the half court and they’re more than happy and prepared to go deep in the clock,” Donovan noted.
- While Orlando is led in scoring by Nikola Vucevic and Gordon, it is the former Thunder guard Augustin who is the team’s hottest three-point shooter, knocking down a remarkable 43.3 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. The Thunder will have to be mindful of Augustin, who takes half of his field goal attempts from the three-point line even as the team’s primary ballhandler.
- “(Augustin) is crafty. He knows when he gets deep in the lane, he finds guys late or he makes his floaters and runners,” Donovan noted. “He can play the game, play the game and then all the sudden you have some lapses or a couple mistakes on him whether it be in transition or in the half court and he knocks down a couple threes.”
NEWS & NOTES
- During this five-game win streak, Terrance Ferguson is averaging 12.6 points and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from the three-point line, continuing some excellent trends from the second-year three-and-D guard. Ferguson, a Tulsa native, had a pretty simple explanation for his drastic improvement over the course of the season.
- “Just not thinking about it. Just letting the game come to me, not trying to force anything and just playing the right way,” Ferguson said. “My teammates got confidence in me, my coaching staff, so all I have to do is shoot it, and hopefully it goes in.”
- Steven Adams’ hallmark for this team has been rebounding, and he’s closing in on Thunder broadcaster Michael Cage for the Thunder/Seattle Supersonics all-time offensive rebounding list. Adams comes into the Magic game with 1,450 offensive rebounds, just 7 shy of Cage, but still 695 behind Shawn Kemp. Against Milwaukee, Adams dazzled in a different way, perhaps more reminiscent of Kemp than Cage. After making a steal on the wing, Adams completed a slick euro-step layup in transition, atoning for a travel in a similar situation on Thursday against New Orleans.
- “The last time he tried to pick up the ball at the three-point line, so it was hard for him to Euro step,” Ferguson chuckled. “This time he took his time with it, and he got it.”
- “I had to redeem myself,” Adams smirked. “No, I honestly didn’t even bloody think of it, man. I was just like... ‘Just take two steps this time, not three.’ So yeah, it worked out well.”
- Adams managed to pull off that nifty layup despite turning an ankle in the first half, which sent him back to the locker room for a spell. In the meantime, backup center Nerlens Noel put on a masterful performance in his stead, playing 10-straight first-half minutes to near perfection on both ends of the floor. For the game, Noel chipped in 6 points to go with 6 rebounds and 2 blocked shots.
- “Coach trusted me with the extended minutes while Steven was down,” Noel said. “I wanted to do my best job at changing the game regardless of what side of the ball it’s on. I’m going to do what I do as a player.”