GAME PREVIEW


Nick Gallo



Every Possession Counts in Second Night of Back-to-Back

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021

Tip-Off Time: 8 p.m. CT

Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma

Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network


Thunder Status

The Thunder had fought back valiantly against Portland on Tuesday night, shrugging away a frigid start and a 24-point deficit as a winter storm blanketed Oklahoma City with snow. In fact, the climb back was completed, thanks to a Lu Dort transition 3-pointer, set up expertly with by a slick drop off from Hamidou Diallo.

Leading 102-97 with just over four minutes to go, the Thunder was just on the precipice of extending its fourth quarter run for good. On one possession, however, the Thunder couldn’t quite come up with a defensive rebound despite a couple of chances, then closed out too hard on Blazers guard Damian Lillard at the 3-point line.

Lillard, who was 1-for-10 from three at that point, pump-faked, took a rhythm dribble to his left and hit the first of six Blazers 3-pointers, including four of his own and two others he assisted on over the final 4:11 of the 115-104 loss. For a player of that caliber, all that is needed is one second chance or one extra sliver of daylight to change the game.

“That possession obviously got away from us,” said Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “One of them was a really long rebound. But I thought our guys fought. I thought we gave ourselves a chance to win.”

The Thunder the lesson of needing strong defensive starts along with offensive stamina during its west coast road trip and applying it to Sunday night’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Now the Thunder aims to recognize just how small the margin for error is in today’s NBA as it digests Tuesday night’s 18-2 Blazers run to end the game and transitions to Wednesday night’s battle in Memphis against the Grizzlies.

Opponent Breakdown

Waiting in Memphis is a Grizzlies team that generates offense through brute force in the paint, valuing an attacking style that puts pressure on the rim with nearly every possession. The Grizzlies attempt 50 field goals in the paint per game, good for 54.9 percent of their shot attempts. Both marks are 2nd most in the NBA. Since the Grizzlies also attempt the sixth-fewest threes, their average shot distance is just 13.0 feet from the rim, the 4th-shortest in the NBA.

It’ll be up to big men like Isaiah Roby and Mike Muscala to hold down the fort inside on post ups by Jonas Valanciunas, but also on guards to defend one-on-one along the perimeter to eliminate straight-line drives to the paint.

“It initially falls on you to guard your own man, and in our defense our guys know that if they do get beat, there’s going to be someone at the rim waiting for them,” said Roby.

Matchup Focus

The Thunder and the Grizzlies both rank in the top four in minutes per game by players under the age of 24. That youth movement is an investment for both teams, but one that also gives both squads the competitive spirit and fresh legs to compete on the second night of a back-to-back. Regardless of what position Thunder players are thrust into during these developmental stages of their careers, like the 22 year old Diallo working on facilitating offense from the post or Roby defending centers one game and guards the next, Head Coach Mark Daigneault knows his guys are going to bring it.

“We're really young, we're really competitive and every night I feel like we're just gonna come out there laid out on the ground,” said Diallo.

“You gotta have heart, you’ve gotta have fight, and you can’t give up,” said Roby, who turned 23 on Feb. 3.

Stat to Watch

Free Throw Attempts — The free throw line is typically a team’s best friend on offense, but more importantly it can be a bane on defense. That hasn’t been the case for the Thunder this season, who lead the league in fewest free throw attempts allowed (18.4) and opponent free throw rate (19.7) – the percent of free throw attempts compared to field goal attempts. Against Portland on Tuesday, even with Lillard playing aggressively, the Thunder took 10 more free throws than the Blazers.

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, are at the bottom of the league in that category, averaging just 18.7 free throw attempts per game, 29th in the NBA. If OKC can continue defending without fouling, it might be able to leverage that advantage in a major way.

Thunder Trend

Dort Drawing Offensive Fouls — After drawing three offensive fouls against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night, Dort now has drawn a league-leading 26 offensive fouls on the season. That’s good for one per game and is already five more than he drew all of last season in his 36 games played.

With his low center of gravity, quick feet and relentless pursuit on the perimeter, Dort pesters opposing guards and flummoxes big men trying to set screens on him. Against the attacks of Ja Morant and screens of bigs like Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke, Dort will have another chance to make his mark.

“There are few players who have that ability,” said center Al Horford, who has learned a thing or two about screening over his 15 NBA seasons. “Being so young he's figured out how to put himself in positions that a lot of the time the screener gets so frustrated with him that they're trying to get a hit on him whichever way they can and he does a good job of sliding through, getting over the screens and not getting screened. That's how you get those calls. It’s a lot of credit to him to stay attached defensively. That's not easy.”

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