Block the Punches and Counter Attack – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at HOU

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

Broadcast Information

HOUSTON – Like a boxer when they repeatedly land their jab, when the Houston Rockets get straight-line drives to the paint, it opens up the rest of their punches. And for opponents of the team with the NBA’s best record, the combination of driving layups, lobs over the top, kick outs for catch-and-shoot threes and long rebounds for second chances can land like haymakers. For the Thunder, stopping any of those things completely isn’t a realistic goal – but minimizing one of those areas could put pressure on the Rockets in other aspects of the game.

As the Thunder begins its final road trip of the regular season with a Saturday evening matchup with the Rockets, focusing on eliminating the easy transition opportunities is a good first step.

“It’s just trying to take something away from them,” said forward Carmelo Anthony. “We could try to alleviate a couple of those things and just focus on what we’re trying to do in our schemes.”

Thunder Talk: Carmelo Anthony

“Whenever they’re in transition and lobs and 3s and layups, it’s like, you’re just giving them the game at that point,” Anthony continued. “They have all their punches at that point.”

Houston is not just the preeminent 3-point shooting team in the league, they’re one of the best in the paint as well. The reason behind that, however, does have to do with their shooting at the ballhandling positions. James Harden and Chris Paul are elite 3-point shooters, which means defenders like Russell Westbrook and Corey Brewer will have to be pressed up on them. That awareness of the 3-point line can provide openings to Houston’s two ballhandling maestros to get into the paint.

“It all starts with shooting,” Donovan explained. “Anytime you have to go all the way up like that on players, it gives them a lot more room and space to be able to make plays. Guys that really shoot the ball extremely well and are a threat to make threes inevitably are put in a position to go around players a lot easier because you have to come up and respect that.”

If Harden and Paul do end up in the lane, what the Thunder does next has massive implications on whether they can come up with a stop or not. Stopping the ball is obviously crucial, but the helpside rotations have to be there to take away a potential lob to a springy center like Clint Capela, and then the communication must be crisp to fly back out to the perimeter to contest threes from Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza, among others.

Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan

“It’s not like you’re gonna stop teams from shooting threes, but can you contest them? Can you challenge them?” Donovan asked rhetorically.

All aspects of the Thunder’s defense will need to be on point, in addition to the team getting high-quality looks at the rim on offense – without turnovers or poor floor spacing.

“You can play really, really good defense and highly contest shots, but if you don’t rebound the basketball it really doesn’t make a difference,” Donovan continued. “You can really run great offense and if you don’t get back in transition it kind of nullifies what you did on offense.”

With just three games left in the season, in the midst of an incredibly tight postseason race in the Western Conference, there could be a temptation for a less experienced squad to press. For this veteran Thunder squad, however, the focus is simply on what they must do at a high level, for all 48 minutes.

“We’ve just got to handle what our job is,” forward Paul George noted. “It’s not a scenario where we’re in a situation to be pressing. We’ve just got to handle our job and close this year out on a high note.”

Thunder Talk: Paul George

Nick's Notebook

- On Friday it was announced that George and Westbrook were named to the Team USA 35-man preliminary roster for the 2018-2020 World Championships and Olympics competitions. Both players have extensive Team USA experience, and both have won a Gold Medal at the Olympics (Westbrook- 2012, George- 2016). It’s a complicated decision for each player in terms of whether they will commit the time and energy to compete, so it remains to be seen whether George or Westbrook will play, but either way it is an honor to be named to the initial group.

  • “I’m happy to continue on being a part of something special and playing for the country,” George said. “It’ll come to a family decision ultimately to go all the way through with it and see if that’s something I want to do down the line. But as of now, it’s been great, especially since I’ve built a lot of relationships – especially with Melo – with USA Basketball.”

- Forward Patrick Patterson began his NBA career with the Houston Rockets, and while he still has connections to the organization he said it’s not weird to face his original team in the league. While in Houston he continued to trend towards the player he is now – a stretch power forward who defends multiple positions. That process began back at the University of Kentucky, when incoming Head Coach John Calipari convinced Patterson to extend his range and embrace the perimeter shot. That investment has served him well.

  • “My whole life I had been a big man, back to the basket, jump hooks, dunks, lobs around the rim. I had only taken a handful of jump shots and maybe two or three three-pointers in my whole collegiate career until he got there my junior year,” Patterson explained. “Just seeing (Calipari’s) resume and what he’s done before and the success that he’s had with certain individuals, he’s pretty much opened my eyes up to what I am now.”

Thunder Talk: Patrick Patterson - 4/5