'Keep Our Foot to the Pedal’, Thunder Returns to Game 5 with Renewed Focus on Social Justice
Date: August 29, 2020
Tip-Off Time: 5:30 p.m. CT
Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
The Thunder and the Rockets return to action after spending the last three days engaged in open, candid conversations on social justice with each other and the league. The decision came after the Milwaukee Bucks decided to protest playing their game following the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisc. on Sunday. In support and solidarity, the league and the players decided to postpone the remaining three games on Wednesday along with the slate of playoff matchups scheduled for Thursday and Friday.
“It's definitely been a very emotional past couple of days not only for myself, but everyone,” said Thunder point guard and NBPA President Chris Paul. “I have to give a lot of credit to our players. It's been a hard time. Everyone’s shouldering a lot, but the communication that we’re having has been amazing. I think what everyone saw in the past couple of days was guys just needing to reset, refocus, and that's what we did.”
Several meetings took place on Wednesday evening and throughout Thursday to determine the league’s subsequent course of action. The ultimate consensus was that the playoffs would continue and the players, along with the league would take concrete steps toward meaningful change.
“Our players spoke and we understood the platform that we have and we wanted to keep our foot to the pedal and keep speaking on the different things that are occurring,” said Paul.
“These guys are an incredible group of people that are going to be able to do both. They're going to be able to handle what's gone on over the last 48 hours and then also have the ability to get themselves back ready to play and to put their best foot forward,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan.
On Wednesday, at the moment Thunder and Rockets players were scheduled to take the floor in Orlando to begin warming up for a high-stakes Game 5, the court was empty. Instead, the two teams were walking back to their respective buses.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) August 28, 2020
As a critical Game 5 rapidly approaches, here’s a look at where the Thunder left off on Wednesday.
After digging itself into an early 0-2 hole in the series, the Thunder fought and willed itself back onto even playing field with a pair of back-to-back, hard-won victories – one decided in overtime and the other most recently decided in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
In each win, the Thunder weathered the storm of Houston’s volatile offensive surges. On Monday, for example, OKC withstood a barrage of made buckets from Houston right out of the gates of halftime. Eight consecutive made 3-pointers took a tied ball game and immediately switched it in favor of a 15-point Rockets’ lead midway through the third quarter.
Poised, calm, and collected, the Thunder, led by the primary ball handler duo of Dennis Schröder and Chris Paul, waited out the flash in the pan of Houston’s offense and stayed the course, disciplined to their game plan and their identity. The result was a 12-0 run to close the half that was capped off with a poetic 3-point buzzer beater from Schröder with an assist from Paul to bring the game back to one point going into the fourth quarter.
By the end of the night, Schröder finished with 30 points and Paul with 26. The two led the charge of the Thunder’s pace of play for 48 minutes. It took a couple of games to settle into an offensive rhythm against Houston’s strange, unorthodox defense, but there’s a trend amongst the Thunder’s success against it: pace and tempo on offense and a stamina to weather the storm.
“We have a great team, we’ve been showing it all year,” said Schröder in his walk-off interview with Nick Gallo on FOX Sports Oklahoma. “We’re just going to stay humble in victory and keep chipping away. Game 5 is going to be a big one and we just gotta come out ready.”
As for the Rockets, despite getting out to a hot start offensively, and again to begin the third quarter in Game 4, their offense dried up midway through the third. After an incredible 8-for-8 from behind the arc in the first six minutes of the third quarter, they went 5-of-26 for the remaining 18 minutes of the game, including a last-second heave by Danuel House Jr. at the buzzer from 54-feet away from the rim that went in, but made no impact on the game’s outcome.
For the game, the Rockets shot 23-of-58 from the 3-point line which marks several statistical milestones. Twenty-three makes is the most by the Rockets this season in a loss and the most in a postseason loss in NBA history.
Going into Game 5, the Thunder will look to carryover that same discipline and composure as the Rockets make adjustments and will likely have the addition of Russell Westbrook back into the lineup after recovering from a strained quadriceps. Westbrook is listed as available for the Rockets and is expected to play on Saturday for the first time this series.
“Going into Game 1 we prepared like Russell was going to play and if he plays, we’ll be prepared for the speed and pace at which he’s going to play at and the way he’s generating and getting those other guys shots,” said Coach Donovan.
For the past two games, the Thunder’s Sixth Man of the Year contender, Dennis Schröder has come off of the bench and injected much-needed energy into the Thunder’s offense. After a slow start in Games 1 and 2, Schröder has averaged 29.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting from the field in Games 3 and 4. Pushing the ball in transition, initiating early action on the offensive end and his ability to get the ball to the bucket makes it difficult for Houston defenders to corral him and keep him in front. For his teammates, it opens up more opportunities on the perimeter for kick-outs and catch-and-shoot 3’s.
“He just puts pressure on the defense,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “Obviously he’s really good at attacking gaps, getting to the lane and putting pressure on the rim which forces the help which opens things up for the rest of us.”
Keep an eye out for how the Rockets look to slow down the German lightning bolt along with the Thunder’s other two crafty guards that make up the most efficient three-man lineup in the league.
Stat to Watch
REBOUNDS. The Thunder have outrebounded the Rockets in all four games of the series for a whopping total of 194 boards to Houston’s 163. A major factor in the OKC’s defense is its ability to finish off a strong defensive play with a rebound. Houston averages over 50 3-point attempts per night which means long rebounds for the Thunder to wrangle which becomes even more difficult on a possession where OKC had to scramble to contest. Discipline to carve out space, box out and limit Houston’s second chances will continue to be a key focus as the series continues.
“Rebounding is critical, and they're a hard team to rebound against…” said Donovan. “We've done a good job up to this point in time of rebounding it. But that's going to be every game something that's got to be critical for us to concentrate on because they're a very, very good offensive rebounding team.”
After overcoming a 15-point deficit to win in Game 4, the Thunder have now recorded its ninth comeback of 15 or more points this season. The win also ties for the fifth largest comeback in OKC postseason history. Throughout the season, the Thunder have made an identity off of generating quality looks when the game is on the line and the clock is dwindling and staying disciplined on defense to get the job done.
“Our guys have done a good job in late games during the course of the year, but I think the biggest thing for us in those situations is us generating good shots. And also, we got to defend. You have to defend late game as well as there's two sides of the ball,” said Donovan. “You try to go out there and control things that you can control.”