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- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
NEW ORLEANS – In some locker rooms around the NBA, eyes are starting to wander towards the calendar, specifically Friday Feb. 15. Airline tickets are being booked, plans are being organized and for some, thoughts are drifting towards a well-earned break. While the Thunder will embrace this weekend’s All-Star Break and are thrilled that three members of the team are representing Oklahoma City in Charlotte, the Thunder’s eyes are still on the prize.
At 37-19, in a stretch of wins in 11 of the past 12 games, the Thunder is firing on all cylinders and has one more test to take before the break begins. On the road against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Thunder must bring its A game and maintain its steely focus to get up to a season-best 19 games above .500, for a .667 winning percentage.
“It's important that we take care of the game,” said Russell Westbrook. “You just gotta take care of business.”
“Every game against a Western team is a playoff game. That’s how we look at things,” said guard Terrance Ferguson.
Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club has won in a variety of ways this season, with victories coming through high-octane offense, disruptive defense and some gut-check playmaking. After having a bit of a lull, the Thunder’s defense has come back in full force against Western Conference foes over the past week, with wins against Memphis, Houston and Portland all coming as a result of stout, coordinated defensive efforts.
“They do a really good job of reading the game, and what’s going on in the game, and how they have to play to impact the outcome of the game,” said Donovan. “There’s not one cookie-cutter way every night that’s going to be the way that you win. There’s a system, and a style, and an identity that I think we have to play to for us to win.”
“It’s just more intensity, attention to detail and just discipline, meaning just doing all the small things over and over again,” added Steven Adams. “Even though you feel like it doesn’t make a difference, it makes a huge impact on the outcome.”
Watch: Practice Report
As for the specific game plan against the Pelicans, the Thunder knows it must do better than to allow New Orleans the 72 points in the paint it racked up the last time these squads faced off. While the Pelicans are just 3-5 since Jan. 28 when center Anthony Davis requested a trade, they still have talent all over the floor and an ability to score in droves at the rim. Be it on dribble drives from Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle or rim runs by Davis, Jahlil Okafor and Cheick Diallo, New Orleans will put pressure on the paint. It’s up to the Thunder’s defender’s to be in the right spots all night.
“Their ones come to more stopping the ball early and then also just the rotations on the back side from rolls or cutters and whatnot,” said Adams. “They love to cut, this team, and old mate (Jrue) Holiday is really good at probing, getting to his spot and his pace is really good.”
Fortunately for the Thunder, there’s a two-way player on its roster than has the NBA buzzing about potential MVP recognition. Paul George is now up to 28.7 points per game on 45.4 percent shooting, including 41.3 percent on an incredible 9.5 attempts per game. That’s not to mention that George is racking up 8.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and a league-leading 2.3 steals per game this year.
All season long, George has provided an incredible boost to the Thunder’s on-court outcomes as he has a plus-10.8 net rating this season, meaning that the Thunder outscores its opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions that George is on the floor.
“Absolutely,” said Westbrook in response to a question about whether Paul George should be the NBA’s MVP this season. “This year, in my opinion, P has been very consistent to be able to do the same thing every night. It’s not easy to do.”
“I’m just playing basketball. Reading my defenders, a lot of times just reading the second guy,” George himself noted. “I know how to get around and lose my guy. It’s about reading the next man, and that’s all I’m doing. Just trying to find and be a creator as much as a scorer for us.”
PG After Shootaround
While George’s constant barrage has been steadying for the Thunder this season, his All-Star teammate Westbrook has been outrageously effective this year as well. In New Orleans on Thursday the point guard has a chance to keep putting distance between himself and Wilt Chamberlain for consecutive triple-doubles. If he notches 10-10-10 again, he’ll have 11 straight games with triple-doubles. Beyond that, however, it has been the infusion of Westbrook’s attitude, intensity and relentlessness into the team that has helped springboard it into the hunt for a top seed in the conference.
“(Westbrook) sets the boundaries the second the game starts off that we’re coming after you,” said George. “Everybody else just has to get in line and follow his lead. He’s going to come out and he’s going to set the standard that we’re coming. That we’re not messing around.”
The camaraderie on display between Westbrook and George this season is one of the defining forces between the entire team’s cohesion and connection. Just watching this group, there’s a clear bond that makes the whole more than just the sum of its parts. It’s not just fun, it’s meaningful for guys to be a part of too.
“We’re playing with each other, and everyone’s laughing on the court and smiling, dapping each other up,” Ferguson added. “This is a great group of guys to play with.”
“The most important thing to me on any team to have a high level of success is, you have to have a love for each other, a care for each, a connection, a chemistry, a willingness to work, sacrifice, all those things and these guys have been great with that,” said Donovan. “Every great team has a great love and care for the guy standing there next to you.”
- Jerami Grant (ankle) and Dennis Schröder (personal – birth of child) both will not play on Thursday against the Pelicans. The Thunder did add OKC Blue players Richard Solomon and Scotty Hopson on 10-day contracts. In 21 games with the Blue, Hopson is averaging 17.0 points on 55.4 percent shooting, which is incredible efficiency for a guard. Solomon has racked up 13.6 points on 58.9 percent shooting to go with 8.6 rebounds per game in the 29 contests he’s played this season.
- “Scotty is a very gifted offensive player,” said Donovan. “He can create, can shoot, a really good one on one player. Richard is a 6-foot-11, terrific big man on his feet. He can do a lot of different things in pick and roll coverages, can switch, can be in coverage. Terrific roller to the rim. He’s long, can block shots. Tough guy.”
- The Thunder was energetic and loose at shootaround on Thursday morning, eager to knock off a fourth-straight Western Conference foe before heading into the All-Star Break. On the back side of next week the Thunder will have a home-home back-to-back to commence the final stretch of the season as the team will have just 25 regular season games left after tonight’s tilt against the Pelicans.
- “Usually this would be a tough one because we know the break is around the corner. Not for this group. We’re pretty locked in. We’re pretty loose. We’re having fun playing basketball,” said George. “We’re ready to go into the break on a high note.”
- “Every game we’ve gotta come ready,” said George. “Especially with how well we’re playing, there’s no time to take a back seat and let up.”
NEWS & NOTES
- One of the players who has thrived off of the Thunder’s brotherhood culture and stepped up when Grant and Schröder were unable to go on Monday was Deonte Burton. The rookie two-way player racked up 18 points against Portland and didn’t hesitate to fire up shots or attack the paint when he was open. Against the Pelicans, he’ll have to continue to defend at a high level as well, both on the ball and as a help-side rim protector.
- “The thing I love about Deonte is, he’s really, really coachable and he’s a great worker and he wants to learn and he wants to get better,” said Donovan.
- “My teammates giving me all the confidence to take all of those shots. That means the world to me, when you see people who are telling you to shoot those shots, that gives you all the confidence in the world.”
- Another standout from Monday was Raymond Felton, who also pinch hit with Schröder missing and played some excellent minutes at the point guard position. Felton’s ability to stay ready and willingness to be engaged every single day between Dec. 30 and Feb. 11 (the gap between the games he’s played in) was remarkable. Each night, Felton could be seen talking with teammates, pulling them aside and doling out valuable information. On Thursday, he may be called again to step up and perform, but either way he’s a crucial contributor.
- “It keeps me in tuned to the game. It gives me purpose,” Felton said about his mentorship. “My purpose is to help those guys and give them tips to help their game and really help us win the game as well. If I can help them then it is going to help us on the court. It keeps me in tuned to the game. It doesn’t keep me isolated away from everybody. It keeps me doing something. That has been big for me.”
- “I am blessed to still be in the NBA at 14 years. A lot of people take that for granted, but I do not,” Felton added. “I bust my behind everyday just like the next person. Just staying ready, working at my craft.”
- For the first time since guard Alex Abrines and the Thunder mutually decided to part ways, Thunder players had the opportunity to talk publicly about their former teammate who gave two-and-a-half great years to the team. While Abrines missed the majority of the past two months due to personal reasons, teammates remain close to and supportive of him.
- “I still talk to Alex each and every day communicating with him. That’s not going to stop,” said Westbrook. “He’s done great things for this organization.”
- “One of my closest friends,” added Ferguson. “He is a really good guy you can talk to, have fun, and joke around with. I wish him the best of luck with whatever he does next. He should know that everyone on this team has his back no matter what he goes through. Whatever his next move, everyone has his back, from coaches to the front office to his teammates. He’s our brother for life and I respect him.”