Play with Physicality, Start Trip with Toughness – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at DET

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter |

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

DETROIT -- It’s not just about whether the ball goes in the basket. It’s not even just about where the shots are coming from. It’s partly those things for sure, but for the Thunder when it analyzes its defensive efforts, it’s about how well contested the shots are.

On Monday the Thunder will square up with the Detroit Pistons, a rough and tumble bunch that has also been putting up points in droves at home – over 113 points per game over their last six contests in Little Caesar’s Arena. After winning three-out-of-four back in Oklahoma City to extend the hot streak to wins in 14 of its past 17 games, the Thunder must ensure that its league-leading defense makes the trip to the Motor City and makes the first punch.

Against Atlanta on Friday, the Thunder may have forced a low shooting percentage (just 30.6 percent from behind the arc for the Hawks), but only 7 of Atlanta’s 96 shot attempts were non-paint two-point jumpers and 16 were corner three-point jumpers, which typically yield the highest percentages. Head Coach Billy Donovan also noted that his staff felt that defenders needed to be closer to shooters and contest shots at a higher level to drive those percentages down further moving forward.

Game Day Preview

“It’s one thing to look at the shooting percentage and the number of threes that are going up, but you also got to look at how contested are they?” Donovan asked. “That, to me, is what it comes down to.”

“In an NBA game, on any shot on the floor, whether it’s at the rim, whether it’s a non-paint two, whether it’s an above the break three or a corner three, it all comes down to the same thing – it’s how highly contested shots are,” Donovan continued.

In this modern NBA, more and more shots are cascading to the rim from all areas of the floor, and from further away from the rim too. It’s not always an easy task for a five-man defensive unit to guard the ball, prevent it from getting into the deep paint, rush back out to the three-point line and contest a shot without crashing in too fast and committing a foul. Thanks to its personnel, the Thunder is pre-disposed to being able to do that at a higher level than most, with length, athleticism and quickness at every position on the floor.

“I use my length. I try to use my arm distance to do it rather than getting your body into them,” forward Jerami Grant noted. “They call a lot of fouls on that now, so you just gotta kind of move around and figure out your distance.”

Watch: Practice Report - Sunday 12/2

The Pistons, with new head coach Dwane Casey at the helm, are playing excellent basketball right now with wins in five straight games to arrive at 13-7 and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Donovan pointed out that Detroit’s pace, tempo and offensive balance in terms of shot selection have been very impressive so far this season, but those high efficiency attempts are coming in part because of the physical nature of the team as a whole, which boasts size, length and physicality at all five spots on the floor.

“We know they like to get on the offensive glass. They like to run in transition and get a lot of easy points in the paint. We just gotta try to load up,” said Grant. “You always gotta be physical regardless of who you’re playing.”

In the backcourt is Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson, who all have not just height but heft for their position, making the job for Thunder guards all the more difficult both on the perimeter in terms of keeping players in front but also on the backboard. Up front, Grant and Steven Adams will be initially matched up on one of the very best interior duos in the league in Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, whose inside presence is allowing the Pistons to generate the sixth-most three-point attempts in the league.

“They’re generating a lot of threes because of Griffin and Drummond in the low post,” said Donovan. "It’s definitely challenging from the standpoint that they both have great size and physicality and length and they obviously can score from the low post and rebound.”

In his 9th NBA season, Griffin is averaging a career-high in points at 24.9 per game, while shooting 36.1 percent from three and 74.8 percent from the free throw line. At 6-10, 250 pounds, Griffin is a hyper-physical version of the new-age stretch forward who can make plays on the perimeter and in the paint. It’ll be a fascinating subplot on Monday to see which Thunder players get the most time opposite Griffin and how well they’re able to keep him in check.

“(Griffin) is kind of all over the place,” said Donovan. “He’s shooting threes, he’s posting up, he’s putting the ball on the floor, he’s playing in pick and rolls, he’s using pick and rolls.”

Regardless of whether it’s Grant who gets the initially assignment on Griffin, the Thunder as a team must be aware of all five players on the floor for Detroit and cognizant of their tendencies as contributors to the Pistons offense. In many cases the opposition will put different defenders on Russell Westbrook or Paul George than ones who play point guard or small forward, so it’s a team-wide responsibility to be prepared for all situations because of the flow of the game in transition and in the half court.

“When you’re switching, when we’re showing personnel, all four guys on the perimeter need to understand who they’re guarding,” said Donovan. “You can get cross-matched. On missed shots, the most important thing is to get back and get the floor balanced and you can’t worry about your matchups. If we got guys trying to run to the man they’re supposed to be matched up with, that’s where you give up a lot of three-point shots.”

Shootaround Notes

- The Pistons are eighth in the NBA in getting to the free throw line, so being physical without fouling is important, but so is being physical on the glass. Detroit is second behind only the Thunder in offensive rebounding, racking up 12.6 offensive boards per game which is leading to 15.2 second chance points per game, 4th most in the NBA. The Thunder will have to be vigilant at all five positions to keep the Pistons off the glass.

  • “We have gotta collectively rebound. The rebounding part is not just necessarily purely based on frontcourt players. It’s gotta be everybody to get in there,” said Donovan. “We have the ability, we just have to make sure we get back in there, we put bodies on people and chase down those long rebounds and loose balls.”

- While the Pistons will be physical and more methodical in the starting group, the second unit will play with much more pace thanks to point guard Ish Smith, a former Thunder player. Along with Stanley Johnson, Jose Calderon and Langston Galloway, Smith and the Pistons reserves will try to catch the Thunder off guard by amping up the energy and speed in the minutes around the quarter breaks.

  • “They play with really good motor, speed, tempo and pace,” said Donovan. “The game could be going at one pace and you get to the end of the first, beginning of the second and it could shift into a different pace and we can’t be surprised by that.”

1-on-1: Patrick Patterson

News & Notes

-       Terrance Ferguson participated fully in practice on Sunday, while Hamidou Diallo participated in portions of practice. Both players completed all of shootaround on Monday in Detroit and will be evaluated before the game to determine their status for the Pistons matchup.

-       As Donovan noted above, whether it’s picking up an offensive player in transition to stop the forward progress or it’s due to a strategy of switching on the perimeter, Thunder players must be perfectly attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of the upcoming opposition. One player who defends up to four or even five positions on the same night is Grant, who explained that preparation is the key.  

  • “You just gotta watch a lot of film. You gotta know all the players on the court’s tendencies, things they like to do,” said Grant. “Once you get that down, it’s pretty much just going out and doing it from there.”

-       The Pistons will play their frontcourt of Drummond and Griffin nearly 35 minutes, but Detroit also brings more beef in off the bench in the form of Zaza Pachulia. Though a player with a very different body type and skill set, Nerlens Noel will be an important foil to the Pistons’ big men on Monday night, using his height, length, quickness and leaping ability to impact shots around the rim and to stop the ball from even getting there with his coverage on the perimeter.

  • “Nerlens is a great defender. He’s a great player for us,” said Grant of Noel. “When he is on the court he’s definitely helping out, regardless of it is being up in pick and roll coverage or protecting the rim.”


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