Oklahoma City play the Portland Trailblazers in the last of the scrimmages before the seeding games start. This game will be the last opportunity for Billy Donovan to tinker with his lineups and system before games mean something.
The Thunder have won both scrimmages so far but Oklahoma City did not look convincing against the Sixers. Philly’s disruptive defense hounded Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder into eight turnovers. Oklahoma City did not play at all well during the first half of basketball.
It was only when the reserves came into the game that the tide shifted. A combination of offense by committee and stingy defense meant that the Thunder chopped down the deficit. OKC were able to win late on in the game.
Andre Roberson has been the man of the moment recently and it was no different against the Philadelphia 76ers. Roberson knocked down two clutch threes in the last minute of the game to secure the victory for Oklahoma City. It was brilliant to see and totally unexpected.
The Portland Trailblazers are a serious team and the Thunder should regard the Blazers with respect. Portland are a better team than what their record suggests. The Blazers have had a torrid time with injuries. Jusuf Nurkic missed almost an entire season. Zach Collins was missing for four months. Rodney Hood tore his achilles.
The injuries are one of the reasons why the Blazers have underachieved this season. The lack of talent outside of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has made it difficult for the Blazers to win games on a nightly basis.
The league’s hiatus has benefitted Portland in a big way. Collins and Nurkic have returned to provide some beef to their front court. Portland will be a tough fixture for the Thunder and Oklahoma City will need to play well to win this game.
Both Nile and J.D. give their take on the victory:
Keys to Victory:
Chris Paul did not play for the Thunder in this final scrimmage game. But with their star sitting out the Thunder’s bench picked up the slack. The court would score a combined 85 points in this one.
Oklahoma City had seven players in double figures, and five of them were from members of the bench. The Thunder’s leading scorer was Darius Bazley, who came off the bench and scored 20 points.
Another young guy in Hamidou Diallo was the Thunder’s second-leading scorer with 16 points.
When Paul returns to the lineup on Saturday, the bench needs to perform like this once again.
As mention beforehand, the Thunder started slow shooting from the field. But with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shotmaking, things turned around. And that great shooting didn’t stop until the game was over.
Oklahoma City would finish shooting 52% from the field and 50% from the three. They did so by setting each other up for great shots. Oklahoma City finished the game with 30 assists.
The Thunder managed to go 3-0 in the scrimmage games before the NBA regular season restarts. Now, the hope is that this momentum can be carried into Saturday’s game versus the Utah Jazz, which could determine later playoff seeding.
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
During the early stanzas of the game on Sunday afternoon, the Thunder looked listless. The team produced good scoring opportunities but shots were not dropping. It was Luguentz Dort who provided a jolt of energy on offense. Dort drained two threes and kept Oklahoma City in the game.
It is hard to quantify Lu’s energy but you can feel him on the court. His hustle on defense encourages other players to defend with the same vigour. However, Dort’s energy has not always meant end product for the Thunder. It is something that Luguentz has tried to address during the league stoppage.
Dort spent a lot of time working on his shot. Dort’s efforts have not been in vain, his shooting form has been refined. Dort has not made wide scale changes to his motion; it seems like Lu has made a few little changes.
The high arc on his jumper remains but the elevation on the shot has been lessened. In previous games, Dort would hop off the ground and elevate upwards. The elevation is much smaller; Dort does not even leave the floor.
The new shooting form has less variables compared to his previous motion. Dort does not need to worry about the size of his elevation if stays on the ground. Less variables can mean that a shot is more repeatable for the shooter.
Billy Donovan has limited the minutes played by ‘the Three Amigos’ during the first two scrimmages. Luguentz Dort and Devon Hall have seen a lot of time at the point guard. Dort played the point in college but it is an unfamiliar role for him at the professional level.
Dort did surprisingly well against the Philadelphia 76ers when he ran the offense. Lu was happy getting into the lane and finishing around the rim. Dort’s size and speed meant that Dort was able to push people out of his way as he went to the rim.
However, it was Dort’s delicate finishing which meant he was able to knock down looks at the hoop. His touch around the bucket was soft. On one particular possession, Dort rolled out an acrobatic reverse layup. This is a difficult finish to get right for experienced vets but Dort executed the move well.
Luguentz was not perfect at the point. He missed a lot of basic reads to open team-mates. There were also a few occasions where I felt that his vision could have been better. However, I was impressed by his ability to create for himself off the drive.
It must be said that Dort’s performance came in a scrimmage against Philly’s end of the bench players. I would not expect Dort to use these aspects of his game in actual games when there are real stakes. His playmaking needs polishing but positives can be drawn from his game against Philly.
Shai the Facilitator:
During his time with the Thunder so far, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has not carried a heavy playmaking burden. The playmaking responsibilities have been shared amongst the team; Oklahoma City run the offense as a collective. The only time that a floor general emerges is late on in close games. In those situations, Chris Paul is the default option.
Shai’s role has been to score the ball efficiently and find his teammates for looks when appropriate. In the last two scrimmages, Shai has operated as a facilitator on offense more frequently.
Gilgeous-Alexander has clearly improved during the league’s hiatus. SGA has worked on his body and looks much comfortable finishing through contact. However, his passing has been the most noticeable aspect of his improvement.
Creating shots for others is a difficult skill to master for young guards. It can take a long time to fully acclimate to the pace and athleticism of the NBA. Once that process is complete, the game starts to slow down. Nerlens Noel stated that he believes that this jump in awareness is occurring for Shai right now.
Billy Donovan clearly believes that Shai has improved as a shot creator and put him in situations where these skills would be tested. The Thunder ran a lot of pick and roll actions involving Gilgeous-Alexander in the game against Philly.
The Thunder have used the pick and roll regularly this season. The set has been a cornerstone of the offense. The action usually involves a lot of movement and screens off-ball. In this game, Billy Donovan called for a spread pick and roll and let Shai go to work.
Gilgeous-Alexander rose to the challenge and settled into the facilitator role nicely. He had five assists on the night but it could have been more if the Thunder did not struggle to shoot in the first half. The kick out passes were accurate and Shai found his teammates in good spots frequently.
His playmaking does still need work; it is not the finished article yet. There were a few occasions where Shai hunted his own shot and looked off teammates who were well-positioned to drain a shot. During the first quarter, Gallinari was exasperated when Shai failed to make a pass to Gallo when he found himself in space.
A point guard has two main responsibilities to manage. They have to take care of their scoring while making sure that other players are involved in the offense. Chris Paul is excellent at controlling this balance. I believe that Shai can develop this understanding of the game but it will take a lot of time.
Terrance Ferguson has been a mainstay of the Thunder’s rotation over the last few years. Ferguson has played due to his defensive abilities; it is always valuable to have an elite defender on the roster. However, Ferguson’s role has been reduced over the last two games.
Terrance has played sparingly; Ferguson only played nine minutes against the Sixers. His minutes have been slashed and his role on the team is much reduced. Ferguson started the season as the starting small forward for the Thunder. He is now coming off the bench and has to fight his way back into the rotation.
It is a harsh reality for Ferguson but the truth is that there are better wing options than him on the Thunder. Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play a lot of minutes on the wings due to their offensive contributions. In Schroder’s case, he provides valuable floor spacing and is a stout defender.
Abdel Nader has proven his value to the Thunder time and time again this season. Nader’s shooting and ability to create his own shot has been useful in generating bench points for the Thunder. Ferguson is better defensively than Nader but there is a huge gap between the two players on offense.
Nader is much better on offense. Defenses do not respect Ferguson’s shot and sag off him. Abdel Nader’s shooting and ability to make a play with the ball means that defenses respect him on the perimeter.
Before the league stoppage, Ferguson was the fourth choice wing on the Thunder. He had a role off the bench for Oklahoma City. His future minutes are clouded by the return of Andre Roberson. Roberson is a better defensive player and he brings more to the table on offense.
Andre Roberson has historically proven to be an inefficient shooter from deep but his off-ball movement is valuable to the Thunder’s offense. Roberson is an effective cutter and gets himself into positions near the rim where he can influence the offense.
At this point, Ferguson’s role in the offense is uncertain. Terrance does not enjoy the same security that he did a year ago when Westbrook and George were still on the roster. It will be up to Terrance to earn his minutes.
Ferguson has to prove that he can be an effective threat from outside. Ferguson is an efficient shooter but his volume is so low that he has minimal offensive value. Ferguson needs to start shooting these looks in volume for him to get more minutes.
The Blazers now have most of their core players back from injury. Nurkic and Collins have both returned to important roles with Portland this season. Hood’s injury means that Carmelo Anthony is currently playing at the small forward position.
The Blazers now have six or seven solid guys that Terry Stotts can use in the postseason without worry. It is a competent team and it would not be out of the realms of possibility to see Lillard dragging the Blazers into the playoffs.
Roberson vs Dame:
Damian Lillard has played at an excellent level this season. His play would warrant MVP votes if Portland had been able to win more games in the regular season. Lillard is one of the few players who can do everything on offense efficiently. There are no weakness in his scoring arsenal and Dame is very good passer.
Before his injury, Roberson was capable of guarding Lillard. His lateral quickness and feel for the game meant that he was able to stay in front of Dame. Roberson has lost some of that speed but he has shown that he can still be effective on defense in the last two games.
Billy Donovan has not tested Roberson’s capabilities on an elite scorer yet. Donovan has placed Roberson in situations where he is challenged but not overwhelmed on defense. Eventually, Roberson will have to get comfortable with dealing with fast, shifty guards who can create in a multitude of ways.
I would like to see Roberson take on the task of defending Lillard. I think he is capable of slowing down Dame but we will not know until they face each other.
The broadcast experience in Orlando has been good so far. I think that the league have done well to disguise the lack of a crowd and create an atmosphere in the arena. Although, these games have just been scrimmages; the production values have been really strong.
The best thing which I can say about the broadcasts is that it feels normal. It does not feel wholly different to a standard regular season game. However, I feel that the league can improve the product’s quality even further.
The NBA should place more microphones around the court so that sounds are picked up to a greater degree. The experience will be more immersive if viewers can hear the trash talk from players and the squeak of basketball shoes on the hardwood.