Keeping the Momentum Moving Against Memphis
Date: Aug. 7, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 3 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
After a disappointing overtime loss to Denver on Monday, the Thunder rallied back with a wire-to-wire win over the giants of the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers, on Wednesday. The Thunder lead for the entire game and withstood the occasional offensive runs that Los Angeles threw in its direction.
It was the Thunder’s defensive pressure and activity that set the tone from the outset on Wednesday. Luguentz Dort, in his first ever game against the Lakers, picked up LeBron James full court. Steven Adams, the lone available center for the Thunder who was without Mike Muscala (concussion protocol) and Nerlens Noel who fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, battled on the block with Anthony Davis to help contain him to only nine points on 3-of-11 from the field after a monstrous 42-point performance on Monday.
“We like to have the defense as a backbone,” said Thunder center Nerlens Noel. “Last night, we particularly weren’t shooting well in the first half but defense was something we can rely on and we were still able to get a 10, 15 point lead … when we do start hitting shots, it makes it that much easier.”
As a result, Coach Donovan’s squad held the high-powered Lakers to their lowest scoring performance of the season with 86 points and a mere 13.5 percent shooting clip from behind the arc. Offensively, all five starters for OKC finished in double-figures with Chris Paul leading the charge with 21 points and seven rebounds.
The Grizzlies are still on the search for their first win of the NBA restart while in the midst of a tight race for the 8-seed in the Western Conference and a spot in the postseason. On Monday, Memphis took another blow with the loss of their starting forward and second leading scorer in Jaren Jackson Jr., who will be out for the remainder of the season with a torn meniscus.
Lead by rookie of the year contender at point guard, Ja Morant, the Grizzlies play at one of the fastest paces in the NBA. They rank fourth in the league in fast break points per game (17.5) and play at the sixth fastest pace with an average of 103.3 possessions per 48 minutes. This makes the Thunder’s transition defense all the more important going into Friday’s matchup.
“Against any elite offensive player, you’ve got to get back in transition,” Coach Donovan said. “I think when great players have space in transition to play with as much as the ball is in (Morant’s) hands, that’s where he’s extremely dynamic.”
On Wednesday against Utah, the Grizzlies subbed in rookie Brandon Clark into the starting lineup in the place of Jackson. The squad got out to a promising early lead in the first half before Utah ignited on a run in the second half to keep the Grizzlies at bay. Morant, Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks and center Jonas Valanciunas all finished with 20 or more points. Although the Grizzlies sit at 0-4 in Orlando, all of its losses have been close with margins of 10 points or less.
Both the Thunder’s and the Grizzlies’ young point guards have made a splash with their abilities to get into the paint and find ways to finish. Morant sits at second in the league in percentage of field goal attempts from the paint by a guard at 73.1 percent. Trailing not far behind him is OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who is fifth with 62.0 percent of his attempts coming from inside the lane. Between these two young, crafty guards expect to see a clinic of creative finishes around the rim.
“We have to definitely apply pressure on (Morant) and make sure he’s uncomfortable because he makes the offense go,” Noel said. “It’s gonna be a big job for us as bigs to make sure we’re at the level of the screen or whatever the game plan is to really honor that and make his life as hard as possible.”
Stat to Watch
Points in the Paint – With the help of Morant, the Grizzlies lead the league in points in the paint with 56.2 per game. The Thunder will look to take a page from its playbook against the Lakers on Wednesday and build a wall on defense to limit the number of Memphis’ easy looks around the rim. Against the Lakers, the second leading team in points in the paint, OKC outscored them 46-44.
“We’ve got to (protect the paint) against any team,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “If we can start in a position of protecting the paint, it gives us an opportunity to build out to shooters. I think that when we get spread out, we’re not great getting back in transition and the floor is opened up. That’s when we become very, very vulnerable to the paint.”
The Thunder’s 3-point defense caused problems for all three of its opponents so far in Orlando. In its most recent example, the Lakers shot a mere 13.5% from behind the arc on Wednesday making only five of their 37 attempts. In sum, the Thunder held all three of its opponents to eight or fewer made 3-pointers in each of its games.