Ringing in the Regular Season - OKC at UTA
Date: Oct. 23, 2019
Tip-Off Time: 8 p.m. CST
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Thunder StatusBuilding. Growing. Developing. This has been the name of the game for the Thunder throughout training camp and the preseason as the team looks to establish a solid identity on offense and defense with a unique mix of talent including eight new additions to the roster this season. Among them, veteran sharp-shooter Danilo Gallinari, established point guard Chris Paul and second-year standout Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who averaged a team-high 18.8 points during preseason play.
With a new look and new versatility on deck, a set lineup has also ebbed and flowed for the Thunder. Each variation of player combinations tested during the preseason offered different strengths and as practices continued, the message rang louder and louder that this team is focused less on identifying specific roles and more on doing whatever the team needs.
“We’re going to have to rely on each other. We’re going to have to help each other,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said.
Opponent BreakdownThe Thunder will start its 12th season in what Chris Paul deems one of the toughest places to play in the league, Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. After playing Utah in the playoffs for the past three seasons, Paul is well aware what it’s like playing in front of the Utah crowd.
“I know those guys really well," he said. "Quin Snyder, great coach, just got an extension. So always a tough place to play, in Utah. And especially the first game of the season.”
The Jazz enters the game with several new faces added to its roster during the off-season, most notably veterans Mike Conley, Jeff Green and Bojan Bodganovic. After going 4-1 in preseason, the Jazz will look to enforce a fully stocked roster against the Thunder leading the way with established Jazz paint presence in Rudy Gobert. The three-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection averaged 18 points and eight rebounds in preseason and will be a key asset in pick-and-rolls with Conley and third-year guard Donovan Mitchell, who led the Jazz in scoring during preseason with 18.3 points per game.
Rounding out the Jazz roster is recognized sharp-shooter Joe Ingles, who shot 47 percent from the 3-point line during preseason and dished out a team-high 5.8 assists. Green and Bodganovic, whom Paul calls “the most underrated signing this year”, both played in all five of Utah’s preseason games. Green averaged 12.6 points and shot 68.4 percent from the field.
Watch: Game Day Report - 10/23
Matchup FocusThe two-on-two matchup in pick-and-roll situations tonight will be one to keep an eye on.
The Thunder has employed multiple looks over the preseason when guarding ball screens. There has been switching, forwards playing up on the ball and also back in drop coverage. Whichever method Donovan adopts, it will be going up against two very effective pick-and-roll instrumentalists in Mitchell and Conley and the veteran big man in Gobert. The Thunder will key in on eliminating shot opportunities off of ball screens for the Jazz by communicating and staying clean.
“I think our communication pick-and-roll has got to be good. Both [Mitchell and Conley] are really good pick and roll players and can make plays themselves and for others,” Donovan said.
“When you’re guarding offensive players like that, they’re always going to be a challenge. But we’ve got to do it collectively. The two people in the pick-and-roll have to do a good job handling it together.”
Stat to WatchIn the Thunder preseason finale against the Grizzlies, rookie Darius Bazley dished out six assists – a sign that despite his youth, he has veteran eyes when it comes to finding his teammates in positions to score. Bazley’s growth has been on display since camp opened as he soaks up everything he can from game situations and from the veterans. As the Thunder continues to focus on ball movement as an integral cog in its offense, Bazley’s assist numbers could potentially remain this interesting.
Thunder TrendEvery game and every practice has been a step forward. Much of the attention has been on non-quantifiable aspects of the game such as communication, playing hard and playing together. In a quantifiable sense, the Thunder rotation has ranged from playing 10 to 14 players in an evening during preseason.
Although this trend is typical for preseason play, Donovan might continue to utilize some of his versatile options down the road as the Thunder continues to iron out and stay true to its identity with every game.