Back in Town, the Boys Are Ready to Defend, Disrupt at Home – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC vs. WAS
- Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
At times it’ll be Trevor Ariza. Jeff Green may get the call, as will Sam Dekker and Otto Porter Jr. Defenders of different builds, heights and abilities will line up to defend Paul George on Sunday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena as the Thunder returns to Oklahoma City to take on the Washington Wizards.
George has amassed a career-best 27.0 points per game average on 45.2 percent shooting including 38.8 percent from the three-point line and 83.4 percent from the free throw line through 38 games this year. More impressive, however, is the way he’s done it. Scoring at every level of the defense – at the rim, on the block in post ups, at the elbow, on catch-and-shoots from three-point range and in transition, George has set up his pieces on the board and played them a move ahead of whichever opponent stands in front of him.
“It’s a chess game. Whatever they give me, I use to my advantage. Whatever I know that they can’t do or struggle against, I know how to set up and get myself going with it,” George explained.
With George knocking down just about everything in sight, it’ll be up to the Thunder to put together a comprehensive effort in other phases of the game to come away with its fourth-straight victory and to become winners of 9 of its last 12 games. That group cohesion starts on the defensive end of the floor, where the Thunder is currently holding foes to just 101.4 points per 100 possessions, good for the best defensive rating in the league and more than a point lower than anyone else.
“The biggest thing for our defense is it requires a lot of effort. It requires a lot of work and it’s a lot of concentration. When we’re doing that at a high level that’s when we’re at our best,” Head Coach Billy Donovan noted. “It’s just something that we have to keep working at.”
“We’re locking in. We’re talking. That’s been the key, just communicating in those times,” George noted. “It’s definitely making it easier down the stretch, once we’re talking and communicating and making adjustments on the go. That’s what’s been elevating us in those final moments.”
The Wizards have shown the ability to score this season and have a few players in Porter and Ariza that can go off for 20-plus points in a hurry. The list of prolific Wizards scorers, however, starts with Bradley Beal, who is coming off a 33-point effort in a Washington loss to Miami. Beal, like George, can finish in the paint, hit mid-range jumpers and is a known marksman from behind the three-point line. The task of defending Beal will likely fall to Terrance Ferguson and George, but all five players on the floor will have to be ready to square up to the shooting guard.
On Friday in Portland, Thunder fans saw just how critical it is for even centers to be in prime position and confident in their ability to stop the ball and contest shots when guards have it in front of them on a switch. Nerlens Noel racked up 3 steals and an additional 3 deflections in just 14 minutes of action. Per-36 minutes, Noel ranks third in the NBA in deflections.
“(Noel) is very quick with his hands and at the same time he’s very athletic so he can meet you at the basket, meet you at the rim and block shots,” point guard Russell Westbrook reviewed.
“Give (Noel) a lot of credit. He’s really good at getting the ball loose and being aggressive without giving up his position,” George echoed. “It’s tough to do, to stay in front of somebody and still put pressure on them. As a big, that’s a really unique skillset that he has.”
Three of Noel’s best plays in the Thunder’s 111-109 nail-biter over the Blazers game when he was switched onto Portland guard Damian Lillard out top. Twice Noel poked the ball away and another time he stayed down on the drive and then rose at the opportune moment to make a block.
Quick hands, spry feet and a penchant for disruption were all reasons why Noel was one of the very first phone calls Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, Donovan, Westbrook and George made last summer in free agency. In a league that is going more and more towards needing defensive versatility and flexibility at each position, Noel is a major asset.
“I’ve been doing this for a while now and if they want to switch with me on, the more the merrier,” said Noel. “I look forward to those opportunities anytime they come.
“I learned in my early career staying disciplined with that reach and not having my strengths being my weaknesses and putting me in tough positions,” Noel explained. “So, disciplined reaches that don’t put me out of position if they take that first step. You just gotta bother them and make sure you’re staying in front.”
As Noel described in his explanation of how he comes away with deflections, the Thunder as a whole have been so disruptive not because of the way the players fly around, but because of how controlled it has been in the half court. The prime example of that calculated restraint has come in the form of Russell Westbrook.
The perennial All-Star has made 3.8 deflections per game, 2nd most in the NBA, and is averaging a league-best 2.7 steals per contest. While most are coming on the back side of the shell defense by being in perfect help position, Westbrook has also carefully picked his moments to aggressively attack for a steal, like he did in the fourth quarter on Friday when Lillard turned his back.
“Moreso than not (Westbrook) is making a pretty calculated decision,” center Steven Adams observed. “He just understands he’s not over-reaching or super over-committing. And when he does it, it’s a good time to do it.”
NEWS & NOTES
- The Thunder has closed out the pass three crunch time games, but the one in Portland was harrowing because of some late-game fouling, which has been an issue in a handful of losses this season, most notably on Dec. 30 in Dallas. Against Portland the Thunder allowed 9 free throw attempts inside the final 4 minutes of play, but part of that stemmed from being in the bonus with over 5 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. With young players getting extended minutes with the Thunder’s second unit at the start of the final frame, the Thunder will have to be extra vigilant about hand placement and body discipline moving forward.
- “We’ve gotta do a better job of not getting too early in the bonus,” said Donovan. “When you pick them up early and they’re careless and at the moment it’s like no big deal, it’s just one more (foul) closer to the bonus you have to deal with.”
- On the offensive end the Thunder is continuing to get the type of shots that it wants, but isn’t knocking them down at quite the rate it would like. Against Portland the Thunder shot just 23-of-45 in the paint, but got some strong offensive movement, pressure on the rim and shot attempts through Westbrook post ups. With point guards Tomas Satoransky and Chasson Randle initially lined up opposite Westbrook, with a likely dash of Beal guarding him, Westbrook will aim to create offense for his team from the inside. The recent benefits have included quick dishes to Adams on a dive to the rim if a double team comes or a kick out three-pointer to George if a defender loses sight of man and ball.
- “My job is to continue to generate shots for my guys and keep trusting them,” Westbrook said of generating offense from his post ups. “It’s big for us because it’s tough to guard. Teams don’t really want to double late in the game. Now it becomes a one on one game. One on one on the block, I’m very comfortable.”
- “You know how the play is going to develop. You’re prepared and ready for those shots,” said George of the kick out threes. “Those are the best looks that you can get, those inside-out threes.”