Speed Burst: Thunder Looks to Run Past Rockets – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at HOU
- Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. CT
- Television: ABC
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
HOUSTON – Winners of 9 of its last 10 games, the Thunder is rolling, particularly on the offensive end where it has now scored at least 115 points in 15 consecutive games. That mark is tied for the most since 1982 when Doug Moe famously led the Denver Nuggets to a stretch of remarkably speedy and productive offensive seasons.
On Saturday evening the Thunder will take on another highly productive offensive team in the Houston Rockets, albeit one who is generating those points in a slightly different way. Since January 1st, the Thunder ranks 8th in offensive rating with the Rockets at 4th, though the Thunder is fifth in pace during that stretch while Houston hangs in the middle of the pack at 17th.
In order for the Thunder to defeat this Rockets club, to whom it lost on Christmas Day down in Houston, it will be imperative to keep the tempo high, like it has during this offensive explosion of late. All that work throughout the season and the missed shots that fell awry in the opening two months of the year have been paid back in full.
“You’re trying to form and create an identity. Guys have a better awareness of where shots are coming from. I felt like we were getting good looks earlier in the year,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “The entire year (point guard Russell Westbrook) has done a great job moving the ball, helping us play with pace, [and] pushing the ball up the floor on misses and makes. We just didn’t shoot the ball well early in the year, so maybe some of these numbers didn’t look quite like they look now.”
“One of the things we talked about with our team was to try to play faster,” Donovan continued. “And the thing that’s encouraging to me is after 50-plus games, we’re still playing fast and (Westbrook) is obviously the catalyst behind that. He has done a great job moving the ball, he has done a great job generating shots for guys. He is forcing guys to run with him because of the way he’s passing the ball.”
In addition to being a clash between two top offenses, the Thunder and Rockets matchup will be a showdown between two Most Valuable Player candidates. The Thunder’s Paul George is averaging a career-best 28.0 points per game on 45.0 percent shooting, including 40.8 percent from the three-point line on a career-high 9.3 attempts. George is also snagging 7.9 rebounds to go with 4.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game, while showing out as a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
“Everybody knows (George) has got the rhythm,” Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson reviewed. “Once that first ball goes inside the net, it’s over for them for the rest of the night. Whether he starts slow or it’s a quick start, that ball is going to go inside the net.”
George and his fellow backcourt mate Ferguson will likely bear the heavy load of defending James Harden, who is averaging an outrageous 36.5 points per game this season on 44.4 percent shooting, including 37.5 percent from three-point range while making over 10 free throws per game. Remarkably, the last time Harden scored under 30 points was on Dec. 11.
“I’m looking forward to the matchup, as I’m sure he is as well. It’s always fun going up against James,” said George. “I won’t give no details, but I’ll be ready Saturday.”
“He can get fouls called in a lot of different ways,” added Donovan. “You gotta do a great job guarding… You gotta try to make it as hard as you can on him.”
While George and James’ matchup is subtext, the real battle will be between the Thunder and Rockets as a whole. Whichever team executes better, whichever team’s role players knock down shots and whoever commits the fewest mistakes will come out on top. For the Thunder’s part, this team is confident and self-assured. While others made team-changing trades at Thursday’s deadline, the Thunder stood firm, and that delivered a message of faith and unity to the locker room.
“We play for each other,” said Ferguson. “We try to have each other’s’ back. We’ve stayed together for the whole year and it’s special, not many teams do that and for our front office to look at us as a special group like that and not trade anybody, it means a lot to us and it makes us play harder.”
“As a team, we know what we’re about,” Westbrook affirmed. “Just go out and compete every night.”
- A critical component in this game will be the way the Thunder defends with physicality, but does it without fouling. Harden is known to be the best in the league at manipulating the game and drawing foul calls, so Thunder players will need to be body-to-body off of the ball, then to keep their hands to themselves when guarding on the ball to limit those easy opportunities for Houston both in the half court and in transition.
- “One on one defense, having help-side, having each other’s backs, protecting the three-point line. You know they like to get up a lot of threes,” said Ferguson.
- “There’s times you could be crossed matched. You gotta get back in transition. You gotta get matched up,” added Donovan. “Then you have to have really good communication… We’ll have to do a good job of rebounding, because the hardest rebounds to grab are three-point shots.”
- If the Thunder can get stops and finish out possessions with defensive boards (an area it struggled in the Christmas Day meeting in Houston), it will have a chance to get out and run against the Rockets. Across the board, the Thunder will also have a size advantage against Houston. Whether it’s sending the ball inside to Steven Adams on the block or playing above the rim, the Thunder will try to convert easy shots inside tonight.
- “Moving the ball, attacking the paint, finding open shots, feeding Steve-O,” said Ferguson. “We know they’re going to help back side, so having great cuts, good spacing.”
NEWS & NOTES
- There were many fun moments in the Thunder’s victory on Thursday over the Memphis Grizzlies, but none more thoughtful than when Steven Adams, standing on the bench, signaled for Ferguson to commit a foul with 1:34 remaining. The outcome of the game was in hand, and Adams’ direction allowed for Thunder rotation players to get some extra rest, but also to allow rookie Hamidou Diallo and two-way forward Donte Grantham to get into the game. It was Grantham’s Thunder debut.
- “Steven is the consummate team guy. He’s always about the team,” said Donovan. “He’s very unselfish. He’s all about sacrificing. The relationships he’s established and developed, from top to bottom, are important to him. He wants to see young guys do well. He is somebody that gets a lot of pleasure through other people’s joys, happinesses, happy moments. He really thrives on that.”
- On the lighter side, the Thunder bench exploded when Dennis Schröder got out into the open floor on a breakaway and flushed home a one-handed dunk. There was a Memphis defender in the area who tried to contest it, but no matter. Schröder had made his first dunk of the year. After the game, he revealed that he still has some work to do to make good on a little friendly wager.
- “Me and Russ have a bet. I don’t know for how much, but I got to get to five (dunks). I don’t know if I’m going to do it. If he still passes me the ball in transition, then I might,” Schröder smirked.
- “You know we’re having fun out there and that’s all that matters,” Schröder added. “You know getting out in transition, having highlight plays.”
- An hour before game time, the NBA held its All-Star Draft, helmed by captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. After initially being selected to opposite teams, James and Antetokounmpo agreed to an unprecedented All-Star trade that sent Westbrook over to Antetokounmpo’s team to play alongside George. After the game, both were glad to have their buddy on the same side as them in Charlotte.
- “It’s great, man. To be able to play with your teammate, somebody that obviously is like my brother,” said Westbrook. “I’m able to conversate and talk to somebody.”
- “(Westbrook) is lucky he’s on my side,” George grinned.