Loose Balls, Free Throws & the Paint Battle Do in Thunder on Road– OKC 114, NOP 118

NEW ORLEANS – A loose ball under the rim just barely squirted out of Russell Westbrook’s hands and directly into Anthony Davis’ arms. A kicked ball by New Orleans caromed off of Dennis Schröder’s ankle and out of bounds. A game of mere inches ended in poetic fashion, as Alex Abrines’ potential game-winning three-pointer with came up just barely short on the rim as the Thunder dropped a tough one against the Pelicans, 118-114. The effort and energy was there, the timing was just not quite there.

“We played, really, really together. We were connected, offense and defense,” said forward Paul George. “On defense, we swarmed. We did everything we could to get the extra 50-50 balls or get the rebound. Offensively we shared it and got the ball to the open man.”

Those tiny moments mattered in the final minutes, but there were plenty of opportunities for the Thunder on a macro level to change this game throughout the evening that could have altered the outcome. 

“The points in the paint and the offensive rebound and them on the glass really impacted the game,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan.

The most prominent deficiency for the Thunder was the 74 points in the paint allowed to the Pelicans, on 37-for-68 shooting in the lane. Whether it was on dribble drives, post ups, slicing cuts or second chances, New Orleans continually got into the teeth of the Thunder’s defense to finish at the rim and draw fouls. One of the victims in that department was Jerami Grant, who picked up two touch fouls early in the third quarter and had to miss most of the second half with five fouls. Those freebies represented a glaring difference for both teams. Aside from a pair of misses with 10 seconds to go, the Pelicans were solid at the stripe, hitting 24-of-30, while the Thunder went just 17-of-27.

The unsolvable problem for the Thunder all night long was New Orleans’ continual attacks to the paint on rolls for Anthony Davis (44 points, 18 rebounds) that ended up in lobs or subsequent cuts from Julius Randle (22 points) it other Pelicans perimeter players. Without much three-point shooting to speak of, the Pelicans used frequent movement, a high-tempo and relentlessness to attack the Thunder’s interior. Even when Donovan’s club managed to get stops on the initial shot attempt, the team struggled to come up with the loose balls and defensive rebounds. In a reversal of a season-long trend for the Thunder, New Orleans dominated the glass to the tune of 56-39 while racking up 18 second chances. 

“Maybe it is discipline with the little things, but I felt like we were trying to box out for the most part,” said Steven Adams, who scored 20 points. “But then again those rotations, since they move so much, kind of makes the box-outs a little bit more difficult because they are cutting constantly. Once they have a cutter, the shot goes up, they now cover a lot of ground. What you have is just like a couple feet from you and the basket, meanwhile they have everything on the backside.”

“I just thought (Davis)’ presence was a gamechanger at a time out there where we were trying to figure out how we were going to defend all their action,” said George.

While the Pelicans lived at the rim, the Thunder tried to keep pace from the outside, attempting 43 three-pointers and making just 13 of them. Westbrook set up a huge one with 4:00 to go, however, as he patiently waited for Adams to trail back into a semi-transition attack. The Thunder center caught the ball at the free throw line, drew the defense and fired to Schröder in the corner, who made the extra pass out top to George. 

Down 7 with 1:08 to go, Westbrook made back-to-back steals that resulted in 5 points between his own layup on the first and an and-one finish for George, who finished with 25 points. The Thunder’s defense rose to the occasion again one possession later and had the chance to go ahead, but the possession was scrambled from the start as the in-bounds pass was strongly contested and Westbrook’s late shot clock three-pointer missed.

“We made a lot of really good plays in the closing moments to give ourselves a chance to win the game,” said Donovan. “We got some timely stops. We got a couple of steals. I thought we generated really good looks. I thought we passed the ball really well, but that was just the last minute and 26 (seconds).”

Randle missed the two free throws after that, giving the Thunder one final opportunity. The team executed the side out of bounds play to near perfection, with Westbrook driving down the left slot and opportunities to pass to Adams or Abrines on the weakside. He chose Abrines, who sliding to his left on the catch, launched to the rim. The shot fell short, and so did the Thunder. Just barely.

“We had a great fight. We battled. We just came up short,” said George.

“We got stops on demand. We got stops when we needed to. We just weren’t able to close it out,” said Westbrook. “It happens like that sometimes. We still gave ourselves a chance to win the game.”

Highlights: Thunder at Pelicans - 12/12/18