Stay in the Defensive Spirit – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC vs. TOR

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
  • Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

All season long the focus in Oklahoma City has been on the offense, and when it will inevitably come around. Well, after yet another strong showing on Christmas Day against the Houston Rockets, it appears that that firepower has been found.

Thunder players seem more comfortable in their roles, and the vision for ball movement and sustainable offense that Head Coach Billy Donovan is coming to fruition. All that said, the Thunder’s primary objective on a nightly basis is to maintain its level of play in the other half of the game – defense. With the Toronto Raptors coming into town with their high-powered offense that is scoring 113 points per game in the month of December, it’ll need to be a full team effort to keep the game close.

“I always believe defense is played with five players,” Donovan said.

“We’ve got to stick to our system. There’s nothing crazy that you tweak, really,” center Steven Adams explained. “It’s just being aware of certain situations, some of their trick stuff … We’ll make adjustments in the game if need be.”

Thunder Talk: Steven Adams

Kyle Lowry is the head of the snake at point guard for the Raptors, who get double-digit scoring from the frontcourt as well with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Along the wings are O.G. Anunoby and Norman Powell, but the centerpiece to the Raptors offense is DeMar DeRozan. The lanky wing is having a career-best season from behind the three-point line, shooting 34.1 percent and covering up a previous weakness. That’s helped elevate his overall shooting to an incredible 49.3 percent for the season.

It’ll be up to Thunder guard Andre Roberson to play with focus and discipline to prevent DeRozan from getting hot offensively, and from getting to the free throw line.

“We know he’s a big pump-fake guy, (has) a great mid-range game and he expanded his three-ball this year,” Roberson noted. “We have a good challenge on our hands. We just have to go out there and continue to do what we do on the defensive end, execute our game plan and our coverages and we’ll be fine.”

Roberson’s defensive rating this season is an unbelievable 95.6, which means that opponents are only scoring 95.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court this season. That places him first in the NBA amongst players who see at least 25 minutes of game action each night. The hustle and extra efforts Roberson can provide when defending players like DeRozan or James Harden allows the other four men in the Thunder’s defense to stay at home on their assignments.

Thunder Talk: Andre Roberson

“Dre’s just amazing. I don’t even have to get into coverage most of the time, which is great,” Adams explained. “It’s easy on the weakside help. No one has to rotate, or whatever. When that happens, when they blow up screens, everyone is like ‘yes … good’ because we don’t have to rotate and do that scrambling stuff, because that’s when it gets dangerous.”

In addition to his work on the defensive end, the Thunder has been pleased with the way Roberson has contributed on offense, finding a better niche that has helped him be productive and efficient. In the month of December, Roberson’s minutes have jumped up to 29.8 per game, and he’s shooting 59.3 percent from the floor on 4.5 shot attempts per game, with only five total three-point attempts in the month.

He’s been more aggressive driving into the lane against sagging defenders to at least freeze the opposition for a key moment before moving the ball on to a teammate. The results have been good, and Roberson is also picking up more assists. On Christmas, he dished out five helpers.

“It’s him putting the ball on the floor and initiating offense. Because instinctively when you start to attack the basket, people are going to at least protect the rim,” Donovan explained. “The next thing is that next pass, that next read. He’s done a really, really good job of that. That helps us because it creates offense for us where he gets that ball in the pocket or the middle of the floor and drives it.”

“(I’m) trying to be aggressive, trying to get downhill as well as being a facilitator for this team,” Roberson added.

Nick's Notebook

- The Thunder’s defense always starts at the point of attack, and while for some teams that’s not always a traditional point guard, typically, it’s Russell Westbrook out at the top. So far this season teammates have noted that Westbrook’s on-court communication has taken a slight step up, but that his strong defensive presence is just a part of his game. So far this season Westbrook is 2nd in the NBA in steals per game, behind only Paul George, with 2.1, while also holding a defensive rating of 101.0, the 2nd-best behind Roberson amongst Thunder rotation players.

  • “Russell is Russell, man,” Roberson shrugged. “Most of the time it starts with him. Him guarding point guards, being in pick and rolls most of the game. He sets the tone for how everybody else plays defense behind him.”

- At practice on Tuesday Roberson was wearing a small adhesive sleeve around his left ring finger, the one he briefly dislocated in the win on Christmas. He was obviously able to re-enter the game and perform at a high level, but confirmed that he was experiencing no problems with the finger after the game. The incident occurred when Roberson tried to strip the ball on a Houston drive.

  • “I reached, and he teached,” Roberson joked. “Nah, it just jammed on the ball. I hit all ball, he held onto it pretty strong, and caused my finger to mess up.”

Watch: Thunder-Raptors Preview

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