Nine days after its series-clinching, Game 4 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, it’s finally game day for the Thunder.
Fourteen days have passed since the Thunder last played in Chesapeake Energy Arena. Tonight, the wait is over for players and fans alike: Game 1 of the Thunder's second-round series versus the Los Angeles Lakers tips off at 8:30 p.m.
“I’m definitely ready to play,” guard Russell Westbrook said following the Thunder's shoot-around today. “We’ve just been waiting on them to finish and now we get a chance to play.”
With practices and recovery days sprinkled in from last Sunday through yesterday, and James Harden’s Kia NBA Sixth Man Award announcement on Wednesday, the Thunder has seen quite a bit of each other over the past week. This is a close team on and off the court, but now Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club gets to take out its energy and aggression on an opponent, not one another.
“We definitely are ready, we’re excited,” Brooks said. “We had a great week of practice. Guys were really into it. We know what they do and they know what we do. It’s going to come down to how hard we play, how well we execute and making them miss. Rebounding the basketball is going to be a big part of this game tonight.”
The week of practice the Thunder had will be a great precursor to the series lined up this week, with the first two games in Oklahoma City tonight and Wednesday, and Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday. After watching film and having training camp-type practices all week, Westbrook and the Thunder have sharpened the edges and found that one of its core areas of emphasis will be key.
“Rebounding,” Westbrook said, in a word. “(The Lakers) have a good rebounding team. When they miss their first shot, they’re excellent at getting a second-chance rebound. We have to do a great job of rebounding.”
Another tenet of the Thunder’s on-court philosophy is intensity and teamwork on the defensive end. Going against players like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the defensive antenna are already on high alert, but Brooks realizes that playing tough defense from the start will be essential. The likes of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, who remains a game-time decision due to a strained hip, will be big pieces in the Thunder’s overall defensive scheme.
“You always want to start the game off with a defensive mindset,” Brooks said. “You want to always do that throughout the other 43 minutes. You have to defend this series, every game, every possession. … It’s always just about staying focused and concentrating on what we have to do every possession. Offensively, just keep moving the basketball, keep setting screens, moving screens, playing with the pass and making sure that we always find a great shot.”
While executing on offense and playing physical defense will be crucial, the Thunder also knows that it must protect home court. In a first-to-four wins format, Brooks’ squad knows that winning Game 1 at Chesapeake Energy Arena could be crucial to the way the rest of the series goes. Brooks knows that the home Thunder crowd will provide a positive atmosphere and encourage his team to play its best basketball.
“It’s important to win your home games in the Playoffs,” Brooks said. “We have a great building, if not the best in basketball. We understand that we’re very blessed to have that. It’s every night, no matter who we play. ... Our guys are ready, it’s going to be a great night of basketball here. ”