- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
As fans glance at the standings and watch the scoreboards from across the league, the oft-spoke lesson has been learned for everyone in Oklahoma: all 82 games count.
It’s not just the “big” games against the high caliber clubs, the divisional rivalries that determine whether a banner gets hung or the games against playoff teams that determine tie breakers. Every single one, including tonight’s game against the Phoenix Suns, who are out of the playoff push, will play a role in determining if and where the Thunder falls in the Western Conference seeding.
In order to solidify its footing, the Thunder has to put its own destiny in its hands and keep on winning. Phoenix is a young and vibrant squad, playing for more time on the floor as well as pride, and a yearning for growth. The Thunder is a veteran squad, with a job to do. Playing the right game, the Thunder’s game, is the way this team has to approach the task at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“There’s things you have control over that you’ve got to do a better job of taking care of,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “Anything offensively or defensively, it’s everybody. It’s coaches involved, players — it’s everybody working together.”
The defensive end of the floor is where the Thunder is most reeling at the moment, though both sides of the floor are connected, so making improvements in one area could make a difference in another. With a highly talented and highly powered Suns squad coming into town on the hunt for revenge for last week’s come-from-behind Thunder win, Donovan’s club must be prepared and focused.
Knowing personnel will be critical – the insatiable scoring prowess of Devin Booker, Josh Jackson’s bounce and energy and TJ Warren’s versatile midrange game will all be factors. While one-on-one defense is the first barrier to the middle of the floor, the Thunder’s help defense is predicated on five players doing their job at once.
The Suns will try to force switches out on the perimeter through screening action. When that happens and Phoenix attacks off the dribble, the Thunder must be there to stop the path of the drive and force a contested pass, or an off-balance shot.
Game Day: Alex Abrines</strong
“Once the switch happens, that’s where the team defense comes in,” Donovan said. “You can’t just put a guy on an island by himself and expect him to guard a guy.”
“We’ve got to do a better job, especially in dribble penetration, rotating than we did,” Donovan continued.
On the offensive end, one of the biggest keys for the Thunder is to make sure the ball hits the paint on nearly every possession. A key force in ensuring that happens is center Steven Adams. Against the Rockets, the Thunder had a hard time finding Adams on rolls to the rim in the first half. Houston clogged the paint, and when passes were delivered they were off target or Adams didn’t corral them.
In the second half, Donovan put Paul George and Adams in more screen and roll situations together to take advantage of some other matchups. The results were better in terms of getting Adams paint touches, and that type of adjustment is something the Thunder must be ready to make against the Suns depending on if they switch or play coverage on Adams.
“If they were gonna put a guard on him, we’ve got to look at him rolling and we’ve got to get him some opportunities at the basket,” Donovan explained. “Paul is comfortable playing with Steven, and Steven does a good job screening for him…There’s I think a chemistry there between those two.”
Thunder Talk: Andre Roberson</strong
- Wednesday’s practice gave reporters the opportunity to catch up with guard Andre Roberson, the defensive stalwart who was lost for the season in late January due to a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee. Since sustaining that injury during the Thunder’s win in Detroit, Roberson has been in full-on recovery mode. Even now, weeks later, he’s just in the initial stages of being able to walk with a straight leg. He’s able to do slow bends, little quadriceps contractions and other small exercise to keep the legs muscles activated and the blood circulating.
- “Everyday is a challenge. I’m gonna take it one day at a time,” Roberson said, while stroking a beard that has been growing for the past month-and-a-half. “I call it the slow grind. So, yeah. A day at a time. Get better with it.”
- Roberson’s teammates and coaches have made sure that the grind is less slow and dull than it might otherwise be. Adams, Roberson’s best friend in the league and compatriot since they both joined the team in 2013, was by his side, sitting on the floor, when the injury happened. George and Russell Westbrook, who have been through their own season-ending injuries, have been there for him too. Best of all, Donovan and the Thunder staff have kept Roberson involved with film sessions and by including him on the sidelines at practice, scheduling his rehab work around chances for him to still make an impact with the group.
- “I’m doing everything I can to stay involved,” Roberson said. “Being around the guys just makes me feel not alone, because a lot of time, I’m alone, four walls, by myself, doing rehab with someone one-on-one.”
- “We’re all in this together,” Roberson added. “We call it a family, a big brotherhood. And that’s exactly what it is.”