- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
NEW ORLEANS – The result of the Western Conference arms race is that from one game to the next, there’s always a brutal lineup of extremely talented players awaiting just around the corner. The Thunder dispatched of the Utah Jazz and stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert on Monday only to turn around to face Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle two nights later.
Despite the early hour of the season, there are 14 Western Conference teams within 6.5 games of first place, meaning that every single clash in the West has incredible meaning. Head Coach Billy Donovan knows that the Pelicans, who rank in the top 4 of points per game, offensive efficiency and games scoring 125 or more, are capable of such explosiveness that it will be incumbent on the Thunder to defend with alacrity possession after possession, without relenting.
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“Julius Randle and (Anthony) Davis are frontcourt players that can really play anywhere on the floor. They both can put it on the floor, they both can shoot, they both can post, they both can play out in transition,” Donovan reviewed. “(Jrue) Holiday is a really explosive guard that can do a lot of different things both offensively and defensively. They’ve got a team that shoots 3s. They’re a hard team to defend, so they present a lot of different challenges.”
“We’re just going to keep on playing like we play. We are playing good basketball right now, defending really well,” said rookie Hamidou Diallo, who played 11 minutes in the Thunder’s 122-116 win over the Pelicans on Nov. 5. “New Orleans is a great team and they like to push the ball in transition. So that’s going to be a big emphasis for us to lock in on that.”
While Holiday is averaging a career-high 20.5 points along with 8.8 assists and Randle is contributing 19.2 points (27.6 over the last 5 games) and 9.4 rebounds per game, the most devastating and explosive star the Pelicans have is Davis, who just put up 41 points (his 4th 40-point game this season) against the Celtics on Monday night. Boston managed to force Davis to get those points on 34 shot attempts, and the Thunder recognizes that while limiting the perennial All-Star’s production might be nearly impossible, the team defense can impact his efficiency by limiting his easy lob finishes, three-point makes and free throw attempts.
“Really good offensive players and good scorers, you just don’t necessarily shut guys down like that, but what you do is try to make it as difficult and you make them work as hard as they have to,” Donovan reminded.
“The biggest problem is their guards honestly,” Adams noted, referencing the way Davis gets open shots. “That’s what gets them open shots. Jrue Holiday is really good at probing, checking a lot of attention, kickouts, pocket passes, stuff like that. Those are the ones we have to take care of and discourage them from passing.”
One way the Thunder has found to neutralize opposing frontcourt stars is to wear them down on the other end of the floor. Against Utah’s Rudy Gobert, the Thunder employed a strategy of continually sending Steven Adams headlong down court on devastating rim runs for quick seals and early post ups. Occupying a shot blocker like Gobert, or New Orleans’ Davis, with a post-up can be a clever way to take up time, attention and readiness that rim protectors value. It can also have the added effect of winning the war of attrition in both energy and personal fouls.
“We have to get (Adams) running to the rim,” Donovan said. “One, is it creates easy post ups and scores. Two, it creates potential foul situations. And we can play off of him because he’s such a good passer. When he’s running and getting down there, that’s gotta be a big part of our offense.”
“Those become very, very impactful plays even though you might not be getting any points, but it does get us closer to the bonus and it does put a presence where with his size and strength you’re creating easy opportunities offensively,” Donovan added.
One big picture area of focus for the Thunder heading into the game is maintaining concentration for the entirety of the 48 minutes, regardless of the time and score. Last game against the Pelicans the Thunder saw a 14-point third quarter lead cut to just two late in the game, and Monday’s 29-point lead over the Jazz was cut down to a nine-point final margin. At practice after the Utah game, Donovan addressed the ways in which the Thunder’s defense needs to uphold its standards throughout the evening.
“In that fourth quarter we gave up way too many layups and way too many open easy looks. And some of it was a byproduct of our defense, some turnovers, some quick shots that got them out in transition, that had them playing downhill,” said Donovan. “So it’s something we’ve got to learn from. We’ve got a group where everyone’s important and everybody plays a role, everybody has a responsibility, and that’s a big part of it.”
“It’s just a mentality. When you’re out there, you have to compete,” Diallo echoed. “That’s what coach expects. and that’s what we expect from each other as players.”
- Offensively, the Thunder has an opportunity to put major pressure on the Pelicans by getting into the deep paint. The Thunder ranks fifth in points in the paint while the Pelicans give up the fourth most points down in the lane. In order to get straight-line drives, rolls and dives to the rim, the Thunder will need to be committed to and relentless in its pursuit of downhill opportunities.
- “We’ve gotta play the way we’ve been trying to play identity-wise,” said Donovan. “We want to push the ball and I think us playing downhill is what’s best for us. Being able to do that on a consistent basis is important.”
- “It’s just direct ball movement, and spacing helps to get into the teeth of the defense,” added Russell Westbrook.
- Above, Donovan discussed Steven Adams’ impact on the offensive end, where he’s averaging career-bests in points (15.4) and assists (1.6) but defensively the Kiwi center is still amongst the best in the league and a vital part of the Thunder’s base. Adams will likely duel with Davis during portions of the game, and will do his best to use his skills to deny Davis easy chances around the bucket.
- “(Adams) does a great job of understanding leverage and angles and those kind of things. The biggest thing for him is he can do it in a way that they’re not fouls,” Donovan said. “He reads the game is very cerebral and is very smart and tries to take advantage of his strengths as a player and doing the things he can help our team.”
- Something else to watch defensively tonight is the way Dennis Schröder plays on the defensive end when he’s charged with picking up ballhandlers. So far this year, with less on his plate offensively than there was in Atlanta, Schröder has had a chance to return more to his roots as a feisty, pesky defender, which includes defending all the way in the backcourt to stymie opposing team’s rhythm.
- “(Schröder) has done a really good job on the ball and in pick and roll coverages,” said Donovan. “(Picking up full court) gets into the shot clock. Teams have less time to play with. The biggest thing for us is him containing the ball. When he does that it’s disruptive, it breaks’ teams flow and breaks their rhythm a little bit.”
NEWS & NOTES
- A week ago, there was quite a bit on second year guard Terrance Ferguson’s plate, and he wasn’t even playing. As a new, first-time father he missed two games plus an ankle injury kept him out of five-and-a-half more games to end November, but since returning to the lineup, Ferguson has been excellent within his role on both ends of the floor. He’s shooting 7-of-14 from the field over the past four games, including 4-for-7 from three-point range while also passing out just under 2 assists per game during that span. Defensively, however, is where he’s been most impactful. On Monday he moved his feet and stayed in front of Donovan Mitchell for large stretches to help keep the Utah guard to 6-of-15 shooting, 6 turnovers and 0 assists.
- “(Ferguson) has done a good job since he’s come back, and that has added a positive element to our team because it’s not only on the defensive end of the floor, he’s playing well offensively as well,” Donovan said. “He’s also not afraid to put his body in plays. For a guy that’s not this physically imposing guy, he’s a physical player the way he tries to play.
- “Where he’s getting better is his feet have kind of quieted form where they were a year ago,” Donovan continued. “Sometimes his feet are moving so quickly he can take himself out of position, and sometimes moving well or moving decisively with his speed and quickness will get better as he gets older.”
- Over the past four contests, second-year guard Terrance Ferguson has had games with four and three assists, including some moments where he’s been able to drive and make the next play after getting the ball swung his way and even finding Jerami Grant in a side screen-and-roll play. Having Ferguson as an offensive outlet with an ability to generate something going to the basket could be a major factor for the team as a whole.
- “(Ferguson) had some more opportunities to drive it and put it on the floor and he’s done a good job of making decisions of when to shoot and when to pass,” said Donovan. “Certainly if that can keep evolving for us that gives us another dimension offensively.”
- “It just creates another person that can get in the paint and make the right play, make the right decision,” Westbrook noted. “He’s worked on that and it’s been beneficial for us.”
- Ferguson’s reserve counterpart, Diallo, has provided a similar albeit not quite as refined lift off the bench for the Thunder so far this season. Averaging 6.0 points on 48.9 percent shooting has been a bonus, and the Thunder coaches are most pleased is with Diallo’s slashing, spacing of the floor, running in transition and finishing. But the team’s clear top priority with Diallo is to get him up to speed defensively so he can be a serious factor on that end before even getting into further development to his offensive game.
- “(Diallo) has to master defense first. He has to master transition. He has to master all the different intricacies and parts of teams’ offenses so he’s not fouling as much,” said Donovan. “Young players, you get ahead of yourself when you start adding more and more things onto their development they never, ever do anything quite well enough.”
- Donovan continued with a list of rhetorical questions about where Diallo’s focus should be: “He’s going to close out to a shooter and to a really good offensive player. Does he have the understanding of what that players’ tendencies are? He’s going to have to sprint back in transition and see the way the floor is balanced. Can he communicate and match up and get to a man? Can he play in pick and roll coverage? Can he rotationally block out?” Donovan listed. “In my opinion, that is the evolution of his game, him becoming elite in those areas.”
- Another young player who is continuing to learn the fine points on the defensive end is Nerlens Noel, who is not only contributing with career-high 61.5 percent shooting numbers, but also 5.2 rebounds, 1.38 blocks and 1.08 steals per game this year. Noel has shown his value as a rim protector, but Donovan wants him to shore up some crucial spots on defense, like when he goes up against bigger, stronger centers and how he handles some of his helpside rotations.
- “If he does get posted up, it’s being able to break contact and move around and get around in front and use his feet because he’s got such great feet,” said Donovan. “The other part, because he is such a good shot blocker, is understanding what shots to chase to try to block and what shots to leave alone.”