Block Off Driving Lanes, Let the Ball Find the Shot – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at TOR
By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | firstname.lastname@example.org
- Tip-off: 12:00 p.m. CT
- Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
TORONTO – Five straight wins, regardless of the opponent, don’t come easy in the most competitive basketball league in the world. In order to make it six consecutive victories for the Thunder, the defensive performance Head Coach Billy Donovan has gotten out of its group of late will have to carry over into Sunday’s matchup with the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors.
With just 11 games remaining over the course of the next 25 days before the regular season ends, each game carries weight. This veteran Thunder squad is ready for this stretch run.
“This is coming down to crunch time and the end of the season and only a couple games left,” forward Carmelo Anthony noted. “We are kind of just gearing up mentally and emotionally for the post season.”
A handful of the lessons that applied in the Thunder’s victory over the LA Clippers on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena will be consistent on the road against the dynamic Raptors backcourt. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the scoring and playmaking to the tune of a combined 40 points and 11.8 assists per game, the Thunder’s perimeter defense will be charged with being physical at the point of attack and preventing north-south driving lanes.
That’s exactly what the Thunder did to hold Clippers guard Lou Williams to just 6-of-16 shooting on Friday, which had the obvious effect of not allowing Williams to get open three-pointers or all the way to the rim. There are also some more subtle benefits to the Thunder’s guards and big men working in tandem to force potential drivers to go more horizontal with their dribbles instead.
“When we got (Williams) to go across the floor it made it longer and longer passes to their roll men,” Donovan explained. “The stringing him out, getting him to play east to west was better, because he was really effective, I thought, when he turned the corner and got going downhill.”
A key cog in the Thunder’s defensive gameplan is center Steven Adams, whose abilities in pick-and-roll coverage have been a vital part of the Thunder’s above average defensive unit this season. Adams is constantly yelling out directions and instructions to the guards, then using those nimble feet to move the massive 7-foot, 260-pound body into position along the perimeter to erase driving lanes. Even for newcomer Corey Brewer, who has been in the starting lineup for the past five games, Adams has made quite the impression.
“(Adams) is one of the best defensive bigs that I have ever played with,” Brewer gushed. “Even offensively, too, the way he sets picks and the way he rolls is incredible. But defensively I know that I don’t have to look back. He’s calling the coverage, he’s up on the pick and roll and I can just play defense.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 17, 2018
On that end of the floor, Adams will be assigned the one-on-one duties that come with defending Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, the skilled center who is averaging 12.5 points on 56.2 percent shooting to go with 8.6 rebounds this season. Adams and the Thunder are typically fine if teams choose to isolate in the post, but also like to utilize that option for themselves on the offensive end of the court.
This Thunder squad is at its most dynamic in the half court when the ball touches the paint, and one way besides drives by Russell Westbrook to make that happen is through post ups. Against the Clippers, the Thunder initiated offense through post ups by Anthony, who quickly zipped the ball back out to the perimeter to get the passes firing a couple steps ahead of the defense. That strategy can be useful not just for Anthony, but Westbrook, Adams, Paul George and even Jerami Grant.
“It helps a lot because they have to double you know it opens up weak side actions,” Westbrook said of getting the ball into the paint and drawing help defense.
The result on the back end of that type of action is every player dealing with a read-and-react, triple-threat choice. Based on the speed and angle taken by the closing out defender, perimeter players have a split-second choice to put the ball on the floor to drive, make the next pass or to take a catch-and-shoot jumper. In that way, the ball truly finds the open man, and as a result often the best shot for the team regardless of the shooter.
“Sometimes in those situations you can’t dictate who’s going to shoot it,” Donovan affirmed.
“When you have guys on the court and everybody believes in each other, you have to make the right pass,” Brewer said. “If you are open, you have to make the shot.”
- A player who has fit snugly into that offensive rhythm has been Brewer, the 11-year NBA veteran guard. Since joining the Thunder on its flight from Phoenix to Portland, where he immediately connected with teammates with a jovial attitude and an interested in card games, it’s clear the trio of primary playmakers in the starting lineup - Westbrook, George and Anthony – trust him fully. That support, paired with Donovan’s guiding presence, has helped Brewer average 14.8 points on 52.3 percent shooting, including 8-for-16 (50 percent) shooting from three-point range to go with 2.6 steals, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists over the past five games since he joined the starting lineup.
- “Coach Donovan makes me feel really comfortable. I won two national championships with the guy. His system, his demeanor and the faith that he has in me makes the game easier,” Brewer explained. “Then I’m playing with three super stars and Steven Adams? I just fit in.”
- “(Brewer) has done a great job of integrating himself inside of the team and then really figuring out where he can make an impact,” Donovan said. “He is getting out and running, he is spotting up in the corner, sometimes he is on the break a little bit, he is finding people, but he is just playing within himself and he has always been that kind of player. He is an unselfish player. He is a ball mover. He is highly, highly competitive.”
- A smart Thunder rookie with a high motor, great feet, physicality and hangtime has also been impressing teammates, coaches and fans alike. His skillset at this point is similar to Brewer’s but those around the Thunder including Brewer himself are raving about Terrance Ferguson. He scored in double figures for the fourth time this season on Friday night, and is showing a penchant for throwing his body into plays and not having any fear for the moment.
- “He is taking the right shots,” Donovan said of Ferguson. “One of the hardest things for a young player is understanding when to shoot and when not to shoot.”
- “Certain guys’ make-up, as a coach gives you confidence,” Donovan continued. “(Ferguson) has got great make-up, he’s highly competitive, he’s really smart, he can pay attention when you’re talking to him in timeouts, he can visually apply it right away, he’s really going to be, I think, a terrific two-way player in the league.”
- “Terrance is going to be really good. He is a young kid, he works his butt off,” Brewer agreed. “I am going to try and teach him as much as I can, but he is going to be better than me. He’s way more athletic than I was, he has a lot of upside and he is a young kid. If he just keeps working he is going to be really good.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 18, 2018