Coming in Hot – OKC 110, MEM 92

For a three-minute span between the end of the first quarter and the start of the second, the Memphis Grizzlies could simply not stay in front of Jerami Grant.

The Thunder’s backup center - a lanky, springy high flyer – drew a charge and was fouled on a roll in the final minute of the opening frame, then got the Thunder going in the second quarter by drawing five consecutive fouls, all on post up drives into the paint. By the 9:28 mark, the Thunder was already in the bonus, Grant had racked up 9 points and 7 free throw attempts and Oklahoma City led by 17.

“It was great to see him attacking, being comfortable with the ball in his hands, playing downhill,” forward Paul George said of Grant. “He just lowered his head, attacked and earned some trips to the line.”

“I was just trying to be aggressive. We know if we get them in the penalty we’ll be shooting free throws for the rest of the quarter,” Grant said. “Coach (Billy Donovan) does a good job of trying to create mismatches.”

That was more of a cushion than the Thunder needed to close this one out, as it maintained at least a 13-point advantage the rest of the night in a 110-92 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

After scoring just 81 points without Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony on Thursday night in Los Angeles, the Thunder again came into this one shorthanded. This time, without Westbrook and Anthony but with a different starting lineup and rotation pattern, Head Coach Billy Donovan helped orchestrate a 74-point first half behind a Thunder record-tying 12 made three-pointers over the opening 24 minutes.

“We did a good job of attacking the paint and kicking it out,” Grant said of the Thunder’s hot shooting from distance.

Paul George got it started by knocking down a step-back three that he dribble into, by all measures a difficult shot. Then Alex Abrines caught it on the wing and buried a deep three-pointer over the top of fellow Spaniard Marc Gasol to tie the game at 10. The Thunder went on to hit its next four threes – two from George, one from Grant and one from Raymond Felton, and quickly built a 13-point lead behind a 17-2 run midway through the first quarter.

The Thunder’s elevated pace on offense was generated by a defense that held Memphis to just 18 points in the first quarter, and kept the Grizzlies relatively in check for the game as a whole. Through crisp rotations and some nice contests out at the three-point line, including a remarkable one by Abrines out on Tyreke Evans that helped force a turnover, the Thunder was able to hold Memphis to just 39.5 percent shooting for the night, including 6-for-28 (21.4 percent) from three.

George was the instigator on both ends for the Thunder, finding ways to not only generate clean looks and free throws for himself, but also to get others involved. It was clear that the day of practice on Saturday helped get George more acclimated to being the lead playmaker with this group. It’s something he’s done all of his career, but the chance to get some work in with his teammates helped the cohesion mightily. For the game, George racked up 33 points to go with 8 assists, while only turning it over 2 times.

“I looked back at the Lakers game,” George reported. “I wanted to see what I was missing, what opportunities I was missing. I thought I was out of character with how I was trying to play. Tonight I got in my rhythm and stayed in my rhythm and played my game.”

“(George) was just attacking the deep paint. They have to converge,” Abrines said of the All-Star forward. “He put us in those situations where if you don’t help, he’s going to make buckets. If they helped, he was going to find the open man.”

The Thunder’s offensive mojo cooled off a bit in the second half, but it eclipsed the 100-point mark with 8:50 to go in the fourth quarter and shot 48.3 percent through three quarters. In the game, the Thunder made 16 three-pointers, tying an Oklahoma City record. The reason for the efficient scoring night was that the Thunder simply took the best kind of shots in the game – three-pointers (37 attempts), free throws (40 attempts) and shots in the paint (31 attempts), while launching just 9 non-paint two’s in the game.

“We did a really good job on offense of moving the ball, sharing the ball and finding the open man,” Abrines. “It’s easy to shoot when you’re wide open.”

As the Thunder and the rest of the NBA inches towards the All-Star Break, this was a strong performance, and a welcome win for Donovan’s club. Despite being without three of its usual starters (Westbrook, Anthony and the injured Andre Roberson), the Thunder played to an identity for all four quarters and stuck to a sustainable game plan. Moving forward, regardless of whether Westbrook and Anthony are back in the lineup, that’s something the Thunder will have to do every single night in order to maintain or even improve its status in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

Highlights: Thunder vs. Grizzlies

Giving Back After the Game

30 minutes after the game ended, along the Thunder bench, players visited with children that the team hosted for the weekend through the Make-A-Wish program. Players signed autographs, took photos and chatted with the youngsters, bringing smiles to their faces and joy to their parents.

George was one of the players who took an extra few minutes to the side with the kids, but then he popped over to center court, where he went from being the hero to honoring Oklahoma City’s own heroes. George has a special place in his heart for first responders, so he selected Oklahoma’s Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) to be the recipients of 700 “Paul George Super Buddy” dolls to be utilized in ambulances in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

When George’s mother suffered a stroke when the All-Star forward was just a kid, seeing an ambulance take a family member away was a very uncertain and scary experience for a child to go through. As a result, George wanted to provide a sense of security to youths in Oklahoma who may be going through similarly frightening moments.

“It’s a very important and sensitive topic for me,” George said. “Up to that point, I had never seen an ambulance. I didn’t really know what was going on. It was tough. I’m not going to lie; it was tough. That’s what this is about; to help them and be their backbone, be their support. I want them to be strong.”

By the Numbers

8 - Assists for Paul George on the night, in addition to 33 points, 3 steals and just 2 turnovers

16- Three-pointers made by the Thunder on the night, tying an Oklahoma City team record

40 - Free throw attempts by the Thunder, while it also attempted 37 three-pointers and 31 shots in the paint, leaving just 9 total non-paint two’s attempted

The Last Word

“We were better adjusted with me at the point and helping Ray with the playmaking. Defensively we set the tone that we were going to help and we were just in attack mode. We established how the game was going to be played from the start.” – forward Paul George