- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
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The stretch run will push the Thunder, like the rest of its Western Conference foes, to the brink over these final five weeks of the season. But after a span of six-of-seven games on the road, the Thunder finally returns to Chesapeake Energy Arena to kick off a four-game home stand.
That’s the good news. The challenge is that its first matchup is against the Houston Rockets, winners of 15 consecutive games as they’ve acted the buzzsaw to reach the top of the NBA standings. The Thunder, at 37-28, are scratching and clawing with a host of eight other teams for a total of six seeds the round out the Western Conference playoff picture. In order to make the inroads it needs to in this late-season charge, the Thunder’s job against Houston starts on defense.
“(Houston has) really good offensive players that can really put the ball on the floor. Harden’s a great one-on-one player. Gordon – same thing – great one-on-one player,” Head Coach Billy Donovan explained. “Whether they have just a pick-and-roll or are in space, those guys have the ability to get by you and get around you. I think any time you create some form of penetration around the rim, you’re really going to lead to fouls or threes.”
Thunder Talk: Paul George
“They’ve got a lot of guys that make tough 3s, shoot tough 3s,” forward Paul George noted. “So, it’s not preventing them from shooting 3s. It’s getting them out of rhythm so they don’t hit those 3s.”
The ringleader for the Rockets, with some major assistance from perennial All-Star Chris Paul, is James Harden. He currently leads the NBA in scoring by a wide margin – 31.2 points per contest, and is helping to orchestrate an outrageously efficient offense predicated on getting layups, foul shots and three-pointers. With an array of dazzling dribbling displays, Harden can get to most areas of the floor he wants, but keeping him out of the paint is a top priority for Oklahoma City.
“You’ve got to keep him out of the paint, keep him out of attacking the basket,” George said. “We’ll be aware of that step-back that’s coming, try to get you off balance and get that 3 up. But we got a good game plan for tomorrow.”
The Thunder will have an extra veteran body to throw at Harden, which is especially useful in the absence of Andre Roberson, the team’s typical defender on the Rockets guard. Swingman Corey Brewer got his feet under him for 12 minutes during the Thunder’s loss in Portland, and after about 72 hours of getting familiar with his new teammates, coaches and the playbook, the Brewer is ready for action.
“The last few days have been good for him just in terms of retention and picking things up,” Donovan said.
“Mostly, it’s getting him comfortable, getting him used to just being around us,” George added. “It’s definitely a family environment here. That’s really the only thing that we have to do.”
Thunder Talk: Corey Brewer
- Speaking of Brewer, both he, his head coach and his Thunder teammates believe it will be an easy process to get him firing on all cylinders with the rest of the group. His role has been clearly defined: defend the perimeter disruptively with length and provide the Thunder some quickness and finishing in transition. Brewer’s relationship with Donovan from their days as two-time National Champions at the University of Florida together will pay dividends in this process.
- “He knows I know how to play with good players and he knows it’s not gonna be too hard to integrate me,” Brewer shared. “I listen to him. He tells me, he can yell at me, he can cuss me out, he can do whatever because we’ve been through that before.”
- “On the court, coach is the most intense guy ever,” Brewer added. “Off the court he’s like a dad. So he’s great.”
- Over the past few weeks, the Thunder has experimented with different starting groups but lately opted to roll with Josh Huestis as the starter at shooting guard, giving him a chance to settle in to the role. Where Donovan has continued to tinker has been with the closing group. Some nights it has been Huestis, others Jerami Grant and at times Alex Abrines or Raymond Felton. Add Brewer into the mix, and Donovan has a variety of options to slide next to George, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams.
- “It’s definitely rotated since Andre’s injury," Donovan began. "Playing against Portland and even Dallas where they went with two point guards, it was nice to have Raymond out there. There’s been some times where they’ve had maybe bigger, longer, more athletic wing players and we’ve gone with Jerami or Josh, so sometimes it’s been dictated by who we’re playing against.”
- Speaking of Anthony, the Thunder’s stretch forward should be available to go against the Rockets after missing the game in Portland for rest purposes. The Thunder training staff looked at this stretch of two days between the end of a back-to-back and start of a homestand to get Anthony a chance to recover from a heavy minute load and a lengthy travel schedule. He’ll be back with a chance to pass Jerry West for 24th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
- “Carmelo’s a complete pro. He’s a great guy. He practices every day,” Donovan said. “Certainly having a couple of days under his belt, he’s probably feeling a little bit fresher and more rejuvenated.”
Game Day: Russell Westbrook
1-on-1: Patrick Patterson