GAME PREVIEW


Nick Gallo



Detail Work For 48 Minutes

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021

Tip-Off Time: 7 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 the Miami Heat, the defending Eastern Conference Champions right where it wanted – on the ropes in the middle of the third quarter without much to speak of in terms of rhythm. Something had been bubbling under the surface, however – a string of second chances had given the Heat extra life and allowed Miami to simply see the ball go through the net a few more times.

The emotional boost of those seven second-half offensive rebounds for Miami, which led to 13 second-chance points, spurred on a 17-3 run late in the third quarter and then a 15-0 run to begin the fourth quarter. As the Thunder catches its breath after a back-to-back set that was preceded by a road trip and now embarks on another stretch of three games in four nights with Wednesday’s battle against San Antonio, it will need to be mindful of the defensive glass.

“Anytime a team's getting second chance points – for you or the other team – it’s going to bring a lot of energy and get the team fired up,” said center Mike Muscala.

Opponent Breakdown

The Spurs, for decades, have been a well-oiled machine with players filling into specific roles and an understanding of where their shots come from on the floor. One such player is Patty Mills, who has scored 357 points off the bench this season, fifth most in the NBA. He’s made 70 threes, which is the second most for any reserve player, and that trend is consistent with Mills’ career given that he’s made 1,006 threes off the bench, the sixth most in NBA history.

The last time these teams met, in mid-January, Mills scored 17 pts to go with five assists. Chasing the quick-footed Mills through a slalom of screens and then out to the perimeter is no easy task. Young guards like Théo Maledon and Hamidou Diallo will have to remain focused for the entirety of the 24-second shot clock to be cognizant of where Mills is in relation to the ball.

Matchup Focus

Night to night, the Thunder often faces similar challenges, albeit with unique personnel. Last week the Thunder faced Giannis Antetokounmpo twice, cueing up the Thunder’s defense to be tied on a string to prevent soaring drives to the rim. The Spurs are also a team that makes the use of drives, though it remains to be seen which players will actually be on the floor given the team has had its last four games postponed due to Health and Safety Protocols.

Regardless of who is attacking for San Antonio, it will take a five-man presence to limit Spurs players from not only getting deep into the paint, but from feeling comfortable to get midrange jumpers to drop in rhythm.

“As long as we just compete and we play together for 48 minutes, I think we'll always give ourselves a shot at winning the game,” said forward Darius Bazley.

Stat to Watch

The nightly update is starting to become nearly unbelievable. Thunder guard Lu Dort has now drawn 31 offensive fouls in the 30 games he’s played this season, the most in the league and 10 more than he drew in 36 games last season. While Dort has stepped in to draw a few charges, typically he’s expertly trailing a player who is coming around screens for a catch or trying to maneuver into the lane with the help of a pick.

“That’s an amazing stat,” said Muscala. “He does a good job getting his chest in front of the defender, which is a hard thing to do with how quick players are in the NBA. He has very good balance and quick feet. He's strong. That's you know that's how he's able to draw so many offensive fouls and then to be able to draw the contact and sell it too, and that's it as an art form in of itself. He’s a heck of a defender.”

The slippery Dort, who is built like a tank with the nimble feet of a tap dancer, ducks, dips and dodges around screens, which baits opposing big men into lurching illegally to make contact. Desperate to give their teammate an inch of breathing room, opposing big men are fouling Dort once a game, which results in a turnover, on a nightly basis.

“He's low to the ground, he's got great foot speed, and he's got a great will and willingness to stick his nose in those plays you know put himself in line of fire,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “He's just a great overall defender, and that's just one part of it, but it certainly speaks to his quickness and his physicality and a well on that end of the floor.”

Thunder Trend

Thunder Rookie Théo Maledon has stepped into the starting lineup in the absence of George Hill, and despite missing a few games due to Health and Safety Protocols, has returned quickly to the impressive form he’s shown in his first few months in the league. Against Miami he racked up five assists, one shy of a career-high, compared to just two turnovers. For the season, Maledon is up to nearly three assists per game, top 5 among rookies, with a 1.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.

Maledon has also been a knockdown shooter from three-point range in his first season, hitting 38.5 percent of his shots from behind the arc and keeping defenses honest with slippery drives to the paint where he can finish at the rim and with a floater. Most impressive, however, has been his touch and feel for passing angles. He’s found cutters and rollers on an assortment of dishes, including a few textbook bounce passes in the lane.

“(He’s a) really mature player in that way. If you give him an advantage, he's gonna make the right play nine out of 10 times,” said Daigneault. “He came in the door with that. That's an instinct that he's developed over time, I think, playing at a high level overseas. Now it's just how does he gain more of those advantages because when he has an advantage he makes the defense pay. As he matures as a player and he gets physically stronger and he figures out how to get some cracks, the idea would be to have him in more of those situations where he's got an advantage because obviously when he does he makes the right play.”

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