Thunder Takes Defensive Edge Into Clash With the Cavs
Date: Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021
Tip-Off Time: 6 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Following its loss to Milwaukee on Friday, the Thunder traveled to Cleveland to prepare for its matchup against the Cavaliers on Sunday. The matchup will kick off a demanding stretch of basketball where the Thunder will play five games in a matter of seven days, including two sets of back-to-backs. Saturday offered a valuable opportunity for the squad to get together, go over film and sharpen its blade with some light on-court work before stepping back into the office on Sunday.
“We just like getting the group together on days like this, even if it's just for film just because it's good after a game, after the emotion of the game win or loss to just get everybody together in a more relaxed environment and root ourselves back into the learning and growing process,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “When you're in the heat of battle, that stuff is a bit secondary and rightfully so. So that's the number one goal.”
The Thunder found itself in a heated defensive battle on Friday in its second meetup with Milwaukee in a matter of six days. Neither team scored over 100 points as buckets were hard to come by in any sort of consistent fashion. Milwaukee surged on large run in the third quarter to build up a 22-point lead which the Thunder would trim down to single digits, but not erase entirely.
Despite the loss, OKC walked away from the contest pleased with the defensive effort it gave against the second-highest scoring offense in the league. The Thunder held the Bucks to its second-lowest point total of the season at just 98 and limited them to just two fast-break points. After dropping its game in Memphis on Wednesday where the Thunder gave up 122 points, the performance on Sunday was a response in competitiveness and attention to detail. This will be an area the Thunder will look to build upon as it continues in its progress and development all season long.
"After the Memphis game we all felt like we could have done better,” said Thunder center Al Horford after Friday’s game. “One of the things is coach expects us and challenges us to be better. Defensively I felt like we responded as a team and were much more connected. It was just offensively we just couldn't get it going."
After dropping its game to Denver on Friday, the Cavaliers enter into Sunday’s game on a 9-game losing skid despite starting the season 10-11. In those nine contests the Cavs have allowed 125.1 points on average as their opponents have shot 53.6 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from the 3-point line.
Offensively, Cleveland is led by Collin Sexton who averages 22.8 points per contest and is joined in the backcourt by sophomore guard Darius Garland who chips in 15.8 points each night. The two 6-foot-1 guards combine for 9.5 assists and 2.0 steals per contest.
In the front court, it is the new addition of Jarrett Allen who has made a massive splash for the Cavs on both ends of the court. Since joining Cleveland on January 14, the 6-foot-11 center has averaged 13.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while ranking sixth the league in field goal percentage at a hyper-efficient 65.3 percent.
In his last game against Denver, Allen recorded his third-straight double-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds while also dishing out four assists.
Be on the lookout for the contributions between these two teams’ high-scoring guards in OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Cleveland’s Collin Sexton.
Sexton has scored 20 or more points in four straight contests and is averaging career-high numbers in multiple categories including points, assists, minutes and 3-point percentage. Sexton is alongside the Thunder’s All-Star in Gilgeous-Alexander as two of the top six players 22 or younger who are averaging over 20 points per game this season. Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson round out the top four.
Stat to Watch
Points in the Paint — The Cavs score the majority of their points from inside the lane. In fact, the group leads the league in points in the paint (54.3) and percentage of points from the paint (52.2 percent). Forcing the third most turnovers per game (15.7) combined with the inside presence of Jarrett Allen and JaVale McGee off the bench give Cleveland consistent looks at the rim each night.
Luckily, the Thunder has had multiple tests in this area over the past seven days going up against teams like Milwaukee and Memphis who both make a living in the paint. After dropping its game to Memphis on Wednesday, the Thunder responded with a strong defensive performance against the Bucks on Friday and only allowed 38 points in the paint – 9.5 below its season average.
“That’s definitely a big focus for us” said Roby. “We’ve got to be able to stay in front of our guys better and build a wall outside the paint. We’ve got to be more physical on the ball without fouling and then at the rim we got to just got to be able to go vertical and impact the ball.”
Rookie point guard in Théo Maledon has demonstrated his incredible maturity and poise throughout the season on offense with his ability to help facilitate while taking on pressure from opposing defenses. Over the past eight games, Maledon has shown his knack and IQ for the defensive side of the ball as well as he has logged eight consecutive games with at least one steal.
At just 19 years old, Maledon admittedly is still adjusting to the physicality of the NBA game but has taken large strides in that area with a combination of aggressiveness and craftiness. For instance, his steal on Friday against Milwaukee was the result of a disciplined and fearless contest against the biggest player on the floor in Brook Lopez. The 7-foot center went up for a layup but was stifled by the outstretched hands of the 6-foot-4 Maledon who latched on to the ball and refused to let go until the whistle was called.
“From day one he's been pretty dialed into coverages and schemes. He's a pretty low mistake player on both ends of the floor,” said Daigneault. “We're really trying to encourage him to just remain aggressive even on that end of the floor.”