- Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
TORONTO – A few steps slow in transition defense. In the wrong position defensively. Playing in a crowd on offense. On each possession, the small mistakes can be a killer. As the Thunder saw on Wednesday night, the final margin in most NBA games is so narrow, that one or two possessions can shape the whole context of the game, and certainly determine the difference between a win and a loss.
Every trip down court matters, but for the Thunder in its 123-114 overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, the urgency that propelled them to an inspiring fourth quarter comeback wasn’t there in the first quarter, when it allowed 6 made three-pointers and 39 points. In the rematch up in Toronto on Friday, that type of open to a game will be much, much harder to remedy.
“We’ve just got to get out to a better start, that’s it,” said forward Paul George. “We close out well, we just put ourselves behind a lot of times. Just a better start.”
“This is a really, really good team. You just can’t really have a lot of lapses for a quarter or coming out of the locker room because you’re going to end up playing from behind,” echoed Head Coach Billy Donovan.
An area for optimism was the Thunder’s fourth quarter defense, which held Toronto to just 18 points after buckling down on the Raptors’ baseline drives. Those pesky actions continually forced Thunder defenders into difficult choices between crashing down to protect in the paint or staying home on their assignments. In the first quarter, the Thunder over-helped. In the fourth quarter, it played with more discipline and trust, forcing the Raptors out of what had previously been working. In order to snap a 4-game skid, the Thunder will need to be ready to make similar in-game adjustments.
“Defensively, guys have got to make decisions,” Donovan noted. “Do you run over and give help to your teammates in trouble? Someone is going to go in and take a layup. Or is the guy behind the basket, and it’s kind of a hard position to shoot?”
“We just stayed home. There was a good balance of whether we should help, whether low guys should pull over,” George explained. “It was a read. I thought we made the right reads in the second half.”
Watch: Game Preview
Offensively, the Thunder can really help itself out by limiting turnovers. Through three quarters on Wednesday, Donovan’s group had given away possession 13 times, which diminished its chances of taking advantage of the most critical number in every Thunder game – field goal attempts. With the Thunder not shooting the ball as well from behind the arc or at the free throw line than other teams, it has to be a group that makes the most of each possession and comes away with an attempt, or with second chances perhaps multiple attempts, on every trip down court.
“Our team is trying to play unselfishly. We’ve talked a lot about trying to move the ball,” said Donovan. “The thing that was crazy about that is when we did shoot the ball, we kept coming up with offensive rebounds, and we had the ball around the basket, and we weren’t able to finish and generate enough points.”
- A major adjustment point for the Thunder in this game will be dealing with Danny Green’s three-point shooting on the perimeter. On Wednesday he hit 3 of his 5 three-pointers in the first half, some out on the fast break and others in the half court. This season Green is a 46.3 percent three-point shooter on catch-and-shoot situations, the fifth-best mark in the NBA. In order to limit those shots, the Thunder must get back in transition, then after stops, get back on the attack and score in the open floor.
- “We got caught in rotations on a couple scramble situations. A lot of it was transition,” said Donovan. “We have to do a better job of matching up.”
- “We just turned the ball over on some passes and got caught in the lane a couple times. We’ve gotta just do a better job of taking care of the ball,” he added. “For us, (it’s) being able to rebound the ball so we can get out and play in transition.”
- The Thunder is now 42-30, fighting and jockeying for playoff positioning in a competitive Western Conference. While the team hasn’t secured a playoff berth yet, it currently sits in the fifth spot, 6.5 games ahead of the 9th spot with 10 games to play. The critical aspect of the Thunder’s schedule coming down the home stretch is that in competing against high quality opposition, the cracks in the armor are exposed. Understanding areas that need improvement gives the Thunder plenty to work off of heading into the postseason.
- “Just having a playoff team in general that we’re playing against will help us,” said George. “This team is geared for the playoffs. They’re playing well right now.”
NEWS & NOTES
- One way opponents like Toronto, and Miami before them, were able to generate turnovers is by trapping Paul George hard out top, trying to do everything in their power to get the ball out of his hands. On some occasions, George has tried to stay aggressive and through sheer will power, create a shot or a drive off the bounce. In other occasions, he’s passed out of the double team and it has been up to the other four players on the floor to attack a 4-on-3 defense quickly. The key is finding the right balance, and keeping a defense on its heels.
- “When I come off of screens, even trying to attack, there is a guy that is always just (there). I can beat my guy, but there is always a guy behind the defender guarding me just there waiting for my drive,” George explained. “A lot of times I am forced to kick the ball out just because that is the right play. I’m going to continue to make the right play. I just got to find ways how can I attack and how can I get good looks within the offense.”
- The elephant in the room for the Thunder is the free throw line, a problem the team is taking on squarely. On Wednesday, Donovan’s club shot just 51.7 percent from the foul line, pulling its season average to just 71.2 percent, 28th in the NBA. Per night, the Thunder makes 18.4 free throws on its 25.8 attempts, and has a point differential of plus-3.4, which is tied for 9th in the NBA. Even if the Thunder shot around the league average of 77 percent, the Thunder could add two points to the scoreboard every night, and put its point differential up at around 5.4, which would be fourth-best in the league.
- “It’s an area that we’ve got to clean up,” said George.
- "You have to address it. We’ve been addressing it all year,” said Donovan. “It’s been up and down, and it’s been inconsistent there.”