Building Towards a Vision Forward Against a Recent Foe – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC vs. MIN

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


Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

There’s still much that’s not familiar with this Thunder group right now heading into game number 21 of the 2017-18 season. That’s partially to be expected, but the team is angry with how it has played and knows it needs to start putting entire games together. Perhaps a familiar foe can help do the trick.

On Friday the Thunder’s Northwest Division rival the Minnesota Timberwolves come into town, a team the Thunder has faced twice, and lost against twice in the waning minutes and seconds of those meetings. The first game ended with an Andrew Wiggins half-court, banked in three-pointer. The other was a tough finish up in Minneapolis. So on top of needing to snap a three-game losing streak, there’s a sense of catharsis that could come from righting two wrongs from earlier in the year. The key to getting over the hump tonight will be how the Thunder handles adversity.

“We owe them. They came in here and we gave them a game on our home court. We gave them a game on their home court,” forward Carmelo Anthony said. “Tomorrow is a chance for us to kind of redeem ourselves on our home court, and hopefully it won’t be four in a row. That’s our mindset.”

“We have to be ready when those moments in the game come to us, and just be a team,” Abrines added, referencing those mo. “We proved against Golden State and against so many teams that we can play better basketball in this league.”

Thunder Talk: Carmelo Anthony

Against the Timberwolves, the Thunder knows its going to have its hands full. Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins form a potent scoring trio, plus two excellent complementary role players in Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson round out Minnesota’s starting five. As a result the Thunder knows it must have a defense-first mentality while still trying to kickstart the offense. While Head Coach Billy Donovan doesn’t want to keep doing the same things and coming up with the same results, he’s also being judicious about adjustments and changes he’s making. The answer must be yes to the question, will this move very likely help our team?

“You gotta be careful in terms of when you make changes as a coach. You wanna make changes that you feel optimistic, not that there’s any guarantee, but you feel optimistic,” Donovan explained. “And you wanna be convicted in making those kinds of decisions.”

The adjustments that are crystal clear for the Thunder to make, in the eyes of their coach and the players alike, are two fold: limit the number of bad, contested long two-point jumpers early in the shot clock, and then probe the defense throughout the possession to try to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Anthony explained that getting downhill and into the paint will solve a lot, and that being cognizant of time, score and possession can help immensely when deciding whether to fire off a jumper.

It’s easy for guys to recognize the problems and diagnose them. It’s a totally different matter to actually be able to execute on those ideas for a full 48 minutes. Between Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Anthony, the trio of Thunder All-Stars have been used to having to play a certain way for their teams for years and years. Trying to break from that when fatigue naturally sets in late in games can be something that takes more than 20 games.

Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan

“The best way to look at it is this way: they all had to play a certain way in a certain point in time in a career, and now when you have this whole group, we have to play a certain way now,” Donovan explained. “We have to create our own identity. We have to create our own vision with this group.

“The one thing I’m very optimistic, hopeful about and excited about is their relationship and their communication has been terrific,” Donovan added. “Everything I feel like I’ve asked and our staff asked them to do, I feel like they go out there and try to do. I think the biggest challenge for us is the consistency part but the other thing is there is a feeling of going back to what they’re comfortable doing.”

The best thing the Thunder has going for it right now is the attitude and connectivity between the players. In many other locker rooms, a disappointing stretch to start a season like this could be problematic. For this group, the only issue is what sits in front of them as a group. The Rubik’s cube of how to unlock the best version of themselves. Everyone is in the huddle, volunteering their services and doing what is asked. With this upcoming three-game home stand starting against Minnesota, it’s time for the Thunder to work it all out. Together.

“Everybody’s trying to do what they have to do to figure it out. To figure out a way to do their part, to help us win basketball games. That’s what I do see. Nobody is moping around. Nobody is frustrated. I think guys are angry,” Anthony described. “But just comes from your competitive nature of wanting to win games, understanding what we have over here, the talent level that we have over here, and not being able to put it together right now.”

“Now is the time where we have to start making decisions on kind of what type of team we want to be. Start focusing on being a little bit more consistent throughout the course of the games. Find a way to string some games together,” Anthony explained. “The baby steps is out the way now. The first couple games of the season is out the way. Now is the time to kind of buckle down and take this thing to the next level.”


Nick's Notebook

- One player the Thunder is working with diligently on and off the floor is Alex Abrines, the second-year guard who is still working back into rhythm after injuring both of his knees in the months leading up to the start of the regular season, one with the Spanish National Team and the other in the first few days of U.S. Cellular Training Camp. The Thunder could use Abrines’ shooting and the spacing that provides, but he needs to get back up to form, and continue to work on his defense.

  • “Alex on the floor with his ability to stretch the floor, his skill level, his understanding of how to play, handling passing and all those things are strong positives. But I do think that Alex continuing to grow and develop defensively is important,” Donovan reviewed. “The amount of time that he’s missed in training camp certainly has impacted just where he’s at right now. I think he’s still getting himself, his legs, under him and those kinds of things. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in Alex and believe Alex can definitely help our team.”
  • Abrines himself made no excuses: “If you only get so many minutes in the game, you get the day after to practice, go three-on-three to get your rhythm. Get your game rhythm shots especially to not lose focus. Just to be ready if the next game you play 30 or 5 minutes. You always have to be ready. That’s what practices are for.”

- There’s an interesting mixture of feelings flowing through the group right now, as Anthony described it as players putting a bit too much pressure on themselves to get results, while at the same time not wanting to step on anyone’s toes here at the onset.

  • “We’re trying to go get it all at once, rather than just taking a deep breath, relaxing, knowing that all of this is new to everybody,” Anthony explained of the general pressure. 
  • “It’s a lot of sitting back and waiting and see who’s gonna do it,” Anthony said, describing those second half stall-outs. “Like, ‘OK, who’s gonna step up to the plate first?’ We got to get that out. We got to get that mindset out.”

- The player who has stood up and taken responsibility for the Thunder’s 8-12 start has been Westbrook, who again on Wednesday in Orlando said that as the leader and one of the two players alongside Nick Collison who have been with the Thunder during this entire time in Oklahoma City, it’s up to him to set the standards, and help hold his teammates to those expectations. Fellow veterans like Anthony understand that mentality and applaud it, but also have empathy for Westbrook’s position, and are poised to help in any way they can.

  • “As the leader of any situation, you always want to take the onus on yourself. Trust me, I’ve done it for 14 years of my career, and I know what that feels like. But this is different. We cannot allow him to take all of this by himself. We’re in it together. We win together, we lose together,” Anthony affirmed. “This is a time when you have to rely on the guys on the team to come together and have the support. The support has to be at an all-time high right now.”

Thunder Minute: Nov. 30