143 Days Later, Thunder Basketball Returns
Date: Aug. 1, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
It has been 143 days since the Thunder has played in a basketball game that counts toward its record. On Saturday, the squad will get that opportunity against the same team it was slated to face on March 11 before the NBA was postponed. However, this matchup is set against an entirely new backdrop with coronavirus and the ongoing fight for social justice weighing heavily on every player’s mind.
“I mean I'm definitely excited to get playing and get the ball rolling on the real thing. We've been waiting for this moment I'll say for a long time,” said Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo. “It's been a lot of things going on in the world and I’m just happy we’re being able to play the game that we love.”
During its three-week training camp and over the course of its three scrimmages, the Thunder got a taste of that competition it had been missing over the past four months. It got its first glimpse of the long-awaited return of Andre Roberson back on the floor after two and a half years. It was able to test its offensive execution and stamina in its win against Boston. It’s defensive physicality and resilience was tried in a 24-point comeback win over Philadelphia. It tested out the depth of the bench and showcased its 3-point shooting in its most recent victory over Portland. Although the Thunder has benefitted thus far from its exhibition games, there’s still room for improvement in these eight seeding games before the Thunder heads into the postseason.
“I think we've been able to do as good a job as we can to get these guys ready for Utah, but we're certainly going to definitely have a lot to learn from over these next several games about ourselves,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan.
“We just want to understand the importance of detail and just make sure whether it's executing on side out of bounds, executing at the free throw line blocking out, executing in a half court setting, executing in pick and roll coverage, we've got to have a really, really good attention to detail,” said Donovan.
The Jazz kicked off the NBA’s restart with a late-game win over New Orleans on Thursday in the NBA’s very first seeding game. Utah entered into Orlando without its second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic (season-ending wrist surgery) who contributed 20 points per game and shot 41 percent from the 3-point line. Without him, the Jazz inserted guard Mike Conley into the starting role who notched 20 points in the teams opening game on Thursday. Alongside him, the Jazz still tout the All-Star duo in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert who combine for nearly 40 points per game.
The Thunder’s test will be how they can defend without fouling against the driving attack of Utah’s guards. Mitchell, Conley and Utah reserve Jordan Clarkson all have the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. Containing the ball handlers while also staying clean will be a key focus for the Thunder on the defensive end.
“Anytime you deal with players that have the ability to put the ball on the floor like they do, you're always in a position where there's contact, and they're very good at drawing fouls and very good at getting to the free throw line,” said Donovan.
“Our discipline in terms of positioning and going for shock fakes and moving our feet not putting our hands where they shouldn't be is going to be really critical because you just don't want to give them free points.”
Keep an eye on the Thunder’s perimeter defenders off the bench and how they contain players like Donovan Mitchell. It will be another challenge in defensive execution for the Thunder’s young reserves against a guard who wants to play with speed and can easily get downhill with a quick first step.
“The biggest thing I feel like you have to disrupt him and disrupt his rhythm,” said Diallo. “I feel like if we come out there and we be the aggressor and we use our length and we use our athletic abilities on that side of the court and take care of business, we can contain them to a certain extent.”
Stat to Watch
Rebounds – With Gobert as the anchor in the paint, the Thunder will need to be diligent when it comes to boxing out and controlling the glass. Gobert ranks fifth in the league in point-rebound double-doubles and on Thursday he led all rebounders with 12.
This is an area of focus for the Thunder especially when utilizing its three-guard lineup with a smaller forward, it’s important that the boards are still under control. In the Thunder’s scrimmages, it outrebounded its opponent in two of the three matchups, but against the paint presence of Gobert, look for the Thunder to put an emphasis on sending multiple bodies to the paint after a shot.
“We've got to be able to rebound the ball better,” said Donovan. “We've been a team that's defensive has defensive rebound the ball very inconsistently this year, and our ability to rebound is going to be critical.”
Over the hiatus and even throughout its three-week training camp in Orlando, the common thread for the Thunder has been its togetherness. When the squad was separated for three months, they remained connected via weekly Zoom calls. When the practice facility opened up for voluntary individual workouts, every single player took advantage of the opportunity to get in the gym before it was mandatory to do so. It only makes sense, then, to see the Thunder’s camaraderie and cohesion in full force inside of the NBA’s new, unprecedented environment.
In the Thunder’s scrimmage against the 76ers, it was the efforts of the Thunder reserves who brought the game back within reach in the fourth quarter outscoring Philly 32-16. Most recently, against Portland the Thunder reserves outscored the Blazers’ bench 85-54. When the Thunder take on Utah on Saturday, Coach Donovan can be sure that everyone on his roster will be prepared to contribute.
“I think what's made our team a good team this year is that when we have had guys down and out somebody else has stepped in and has really fulfilled a role and we're going to need everybody to stay engaged, we’re not going to be able to play every player tomorrow night. But that doesn't mean that if someone's not playing tomorrow night they couldn't possibly be playing later here in August,” said Donovan.