In Case of Missed Shots, Lean on Defense – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at DEN

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

Broadcast Information

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

DENVER – Even if he didn’t say it in so many words, Billy Donovan sensed it before the Thunder’s last road game against the Wizards. Despite being on an 8-game win streak, the Thunder’s defense hadn’t been up to its usual standards, though it had been red hot on offense, making shots from all over the floor during the month of January when it had the NBA's 2nd best offensive rating at 112.8.

There was a premonition from the Thunder head man that his team was due for a night where shots didn’t fall, and would have to reclaim the defensive identity that had been so season-defining for most of the year. Donovan was right on both counts, and despite not coming away with a win in Washington, the Thunder’s defense stepped to the plate to hold the Wizards to 37 percent shooting and gave the team a chance to win despite a 36 percent shooting night including a 4-for-18 mark on the fast break in addition to 20 turnovers.

“The turnovers, the lack of finishing on the break and the missed shots, especially from the three-point line, really hurt us,” Donovan noted. “But the thing that was encouraging was that if we had played defense like we had the last five games it could have been a game that we would have been down 15-20 and we wouldn’t have given ourselves a chance.”

That’s why the Thunder’s number one focus heading into its Northwest Division matchup against the Denver Nuggets will again be the defense. If Donovan’s group holds up on that end of the floor, it will give itself a fighting chance to this time be the team that makes plays down the stretch if shots just aren’t falling. And with big man Nikola Jokic and guards Will Barton, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris to make plays, the Thunder will definitely have its hands full.

The emphasis on defense was balanced by a concerted effort at practice on Wednesday to work through some offensive concepts and re-sharpen on that end of the floor. In the fourth quarter against Washington, the Thunder had a hard time finding the hot hand of Paul George, so Donovan is helping the team coordinate ways to keep defenses busy and occupied to free up scoring opportunities. Turning over every rock from a schematic standpoint and talking through decision trees with players has been a fruitful way for Donovan to keep his players engaged physically and mentally on offense.

“I always try to take different alignments or different sets or different movements and stuff and try to look at it and see, does it apply to our team and can we utilize or make some tweaks or changes that may be able to help us,” Donovan said.

One set in particular that the Thunder has used all season long, and particularly in crunch time, has been the “Hawk” set. Russell Westbrook starts with the ball on the wing, Carmelo Anthony sets an initial screen for George, and then immediately comes to set a ball screen for Westbrook while George zooms around screens from the other Thunder guard and Steven Adams. The result is either a driving lane for Westbrook, a pick-and-pop pass for Anthony, or a triple-threat catch for George, who can either shoot, pass or attack.

“Just coming off that screen, I’m looking to try to engage whoever’s guarding Melo, kinda freeing Russ coming off that pick-and-roll,” George began. “I know coming off that back side, I’m getting a double screen. So, I’m gonna be free off that. Most of it is just pace, just try to get some movement just to free those two guys up.”

While teams certainly know one another’s plays by this point in the season, this offensive set has still been effective, so don’t be surprised to see the Thunder run it a handful of times or more against Denver.

Nick's Notebook

- After starting Terrance Ferguson alongside the other four starters, Donovan went with Josh Huestis down the stretch against Washington has the Thunder’s fifth man in crunch time. It seems that Donovan will continue to tinker with who finishes games based on matchups and game flow moving forward. Huestis was the man for the job against the Wizards because of how he had performed earlier in the quarter, with a crucial corner three-pointer and some tight, physical defense on Bradley Beal that resulted in multiple stops. Huestis earned the right to be on the floor, and Donovan recognized his contributions, despite a pair of mistakes by the rangy forward in the closing minute.

  • “He defended really well. He really did a really, really good job on Beal. He rebounded, he had a blocked shot,” Donovan said of Huestis. “He somewhat struggled offensively coming down the stretch, which was unfortunate. I think it probably took away a little bit, not from me, but it probably overshadowed maybe how well he had done defensively.”

- The Thunder has employed a slight wrinkle to its routine this week, opting not to hold a shootaround on Tuesday morning in Washington or on Thursday morning in Denver. Instead the team will hold meetings and film sessions. The biggest factor in the decision steps from the fact that when the Thunder plays the New Orleans Pelicans at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday night, it will have played six consecutive games in a different time zone, with some wild travel between Oklahoma City, Detroit, Washington and Denver in between over the past week.

  • “All those decisions about the non-shootarounds has more to do with what kind physical impact and toll it has on guys,” Donovan explained. “A lot of it is based on the information and the framework from the medical staff in terms these guys. A lot of times it’s not about today or tomorrow, it’s about what’s happened the last several weeks. We try to make the best decisions as it relates to these guys being in the best physical and mental state to be able to play.”

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