Make Plays, Adjust on the Fly and Stick Together – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at DEN
- Tip-off: 9:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
DENVER – Welcome to the Western Conference gauntlet. In a span of six days this week, the Thunder is in the midst of facing four high level teams that are all vying for very early playoff positioning in the vaunted, competitive West.
First the Thunder dispatched the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena in a rout. On Wednesday, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club lost at the wire to a New Orleans Pelicans squad that scored 74 points in the paint. Friday starts a back-to-back set, first on the road against the conference-leading Denver Nuggets with the LA Clippers laying in wait in Oklahoma City for the team to return home for the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday.
Shootaround: Steven Adams
To win these games against talented, well-coached foes that have some roster continuity and a hunger to vault ahead in the standings, the Thunder will not only have to play up to its standards for all four quarters but also to come through in crunch time. In Russell Westbrook, the team has a proven late-game playmaker, whose aggressiveness and confidence can help generate heroics for himself and teammates. The floor general views it a little bit more technically, however.
“It’s just executing. Taking our time and getting the shots we want. Miss or make, we’re going to live by them. That’s what we do,” said Westbrook. “When the game is on the line you have to make a play to give yourself a chance to win.”
Generating high percentage shots will be crucial against a revitalized Denver defense that has held 11 of its 27 opponents under 100 points so far this season. While the top priority offensively for the Thunder is getting downhill for layups for its key starting playmakers Westbrook and Paul George or lobs up to Steven Adams, there are opportunities for others to be play finishers on cuts to the paint or catch-and-shoot jumpers on the perimeter.
So far this season, those shots have not been going down at a high rate, just 31.8 percent from behind the arc. Still, in order to keep defenses honest and to continue shooting high-efficiency looks, the Thunder has to keep plugging away until it can catch a rhythm.
“Our three-point shooting, where it is over 26 games and where it ranks is at the bottom of the league. I just think we’re a better shooting team than what we’ve shown,” said Donovan. “They are shots that we have to take. We’re driving in there, we’re playing downhill, we’re attacking the paint and we’re finding guys for good looks.”
If those shots don’t fall at a high clip in the thin air of Denver, the Thunder knows it will have to manufacture points through the way it shares the ball, carves out angles on offense, creates two-on-ones and scores off of its defense. It takes all five men in motion to move around tall, long defenders like the ones Denver has – including a recent starting frontcourt of Juancho Hernangomez at 6-foot-9, Mason Plumlee at 6-foot-11 and Nikola Jokic at 7-feet.
“We know what we can do on the offensive end if we share the ball and move the ball,” said starting shooting guard Terrance Ferguson.
“Myself, Russ, we know we can’t do it alone,” said George. “We know we need these guys. The only way we’re going to get to where we want to get it is if everybody is touching the ball, getting a feel for it. Our job is to make the game easy for everybody around us. If a guy is open, we trust him and we rely on him to make those shots. We need everybody in this locker room.”
On the defensive end, the Thunder knows it must do a better job sealing off driving lanes, denying rolls to the rim and then cleaning up the glass. Those were rare issues in New Orleans that every player mentioned after the 118-114 loss to the Pelicans. What the team will also aim to do against the Nuggets is something it did well in New Orleans – adjust to a challenging opponent play call and disrupt those sets as the game goes on.
The example in New Orleans came at the 5:52 and 5:05 marks of the first quarter, when the Pelicans ran a tricky action called a “Maggette Cut” after former NBA wing Corey Maggette, whose quickness, leaping ability and penchant for drawing foul calls made him the ideal weapon in this scenario. As Pelicans center Anthony Davis screens and rolls hard down the middle of the lane, the Thunder’s defense gets pulled in and leaves a gap in the area right behind where Davis left. Bruising Pelicans forward Julius Randle shapes up behind the pick and roll and cuts in from the weak side corner at just the right time to accept the pass on a “go and catch” type of cut.
On the very next possession, the ever-brilliant Adams sniffs out this play being run again, and this time he and Westbrook stall Randle’s attempted cut to the basket, force the action to stall and get a deflection, sending the ball out of bounds with little time on the shot clock. The sequence is a prime example of how Donovan’s group is able to adjust on the fly and be disruptive just by being in the right place.
- The Nuggets have incredible size across all five positions on the floor, which can become even more disruptive when in the half court. In a major turnaround from last season, Denver’s defense has the sixth-best rating so far this year and is in the top 10 in field goal percentage allowed. In order to prevent Denver’s wall of defenders from presenting itself, it’ll be up to Westbrook and others to use the Thunder’s speed.
- “Pushing the ball, playing fast, trying to attack, getting out in transition,” said Donovan. “When those things happen, it’s certainly very, very difficult for anyone to keep him in front.”
- On the defensive side of the ball the Thunder faces a unique challenge. What makes the Nuggets such a challenge is that much of their offense originates from their centers and power forwards instead of guards like Jamal Murray and Monte Morris. Between Jokic (7.6), Plumlee (2.1) and Trey Lyles (1.4), the Nuggets frontcourt core is averaging over 10 assists per game by operating out of the high post or the block to find darting cutters or shooters on screening actions. Keeping Denver’s bigs as far from the basket as possible is a good start.
- “They have a lot of movement and a lot of cutting. It’s a little bit different from the standpoint that a lot of times your guards are your creators, your playmakers and your passers. For their team, their bigs are with Jokic and Plumlee. They’re terrific passers. They’re terrific rollers and rebounders and they have the ability to score. A lot of it is our ability to be able to guard the movement and then also be able to handle those guys when they’re up front in around the basket.”
- “The main thing is just trying to extend their catches. What we’re talking about is a couple feet extending their catches out. At the start of it that will affect the outcome of it drastically,” said Adams. “Our guards have to be really good at staying locked in on their guy a lot because they cut really well. They run their stuff with a lot of pace. It should be a good game. A lot of movement from this team.”
NEWS & NOTES
- Something to potentially look out for in coming weeks or months is the possibility of seeing a lineup that includes Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel playing on the floor together. Against teams with strong front lines or in situations when rebounding is a problem, Donovan said that he could see some potential player groupings that include both centers at the same time – similar to the two-point guard lineups Donovan utilizes with Westbrook and Dennis Schröder. Due to injury and illness amongst some core players the Thunder hasn’t practiced that pairing much, but Donovan aims to see what it looks like down the line.
- “I wish we would have had more time to work on some of that stuff. That could be a possibility,” said Donovan. “It’s probably something I need to look more at when we have time to do it.”
- Despite going just 1-of-5 from behind the arc against the Pelicans, Thunder forward Jerami Grant still leads the team in three-point shooting this season at 37.8 percent, including 37.5 percent from the corners. That’s a remarkable feat considering Grant shot just 29.1 percent last season, and 27.3 percent from the corners. The Thunder’s Swiss Army Knife has now played three different offensive positions for the team over the past three seasons and is doing a remarkable job of giving the team what it needs.
- “(Grant’s) confidence continues to grow. That’s the biggest thing he continues to evolve as a player,” said Donovan. “He’s shot the ball well from behind the line. He gives us a guy that’s got great flexibility on the defensive end of floor. His overall offensive game has gotten a lot better. Certainly every year that goes by it seems like he adds a different dimension to his game.”
- The Thunder continues to struggle at the free throw line, going just 17-of-27 from the line against New Orleans, but the team is working on it every day in practice and at shootaround. For the season, the Thunder is shooting just 70.8 percent, but is concentrating and focusing on every opportunity to knock them down.
- “I mean we want to make all of them. That’s the goal. Sometimes it just doesn’t do the thing that you want it to do,” Adams said.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 14, 2018