Thunder's second unit starting to come together
Thunder center Nerlens Noel jumped away from his man to spring in front of Clippers guard Landry Shamet as he threw up a layup attempt. Noel swatted it down straight into the hands of Thunder wing Abdel Nader.
The stop came in the middle of a 15-2 run by the Thunder’s second unit to close the third quarter and begin the fourth of an eventual 118-110 loss to the Clippers on Friday. At the time, OKC’s run cut the Clipper’s lead to one point.
“I think that was one thing that helped our defense get back in the game,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after practice Sunday, “was he had a couple blocks and a couple altering of shots. And then he got some rolls to the basket, some finishes to the rim. But when he gets his athleticism and speed and his length into the game like he did against the Clippers, generally it helps us get out in transition and makes the game a little bit easy.”
The Thunder second unit has staged comebacks in each of the past three games, the first three in a four-game Western Conference road trip. OKC won just one of those three foul-heavy games and heads to Utah for the fourth Monday. The stability of the second unit wasn’t enough to spark a winning streak, but it was a new development.
Absences and additions disrupted the Thunder’s rotations in late February and early March. Jerami Grant sprained his ankle, and Dennis Schroder was away for the birth of his son before the All-Star break. Markieff Morris joined the team, and Paul George missed three games due to right shoulder soreness after the break.
“It’s been different,” Donovan said, “and I feel like we’ve gotten better over the last game or two where there’s been more consistency, kind of the same unit of guys going out there.”
George has shot just 31.3 percent from the floor in three games since returning from a right shoulder injury. As Donovan continues to stagger George’s minutes with starting point guard Russell Westbrook, and backup point guard Schroder has fallen into a shooting slump of his own since the break (31.9 percent from the field), much of the second unit’s success has stemmed from its defense.
Several individuals have shown improvement. Morris has gotten to know his new teammates better. Nader has focused on not jumping on pump-fakes.
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“Everybody was giving me (expletive) for it a couple weeks ago,” Nader said, laughing, “so now I know, don’t (expletive) jump.”
Noel, however, has consistently given the Thunder a boost over the past month. When Noel was on the floor Friday, the Thunder outscored the Clippers by 13 points, giving him the best plus/minus on the team in that game.
The Thunder’s second unit still has room to improve on defense as the playoffs approach. Noel has averaged four fouls in the Thunder’s past four games. When Noel matched up well on Denver all-star Nikola Jokic two weeks ago, Donovan said he wanted to leave him in longer, but Noel fouled out after 17:31 on the floor.
Noel, at 6-foot-11, 220 pounds, is quick enough to match up on guards. He picked Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard’s pocket twice when isolated on him in the Thunder’s first win in Portland this season. But Noel switching onto a guard often means 6-foot-1 Schroder has to guard a big.
“Just try to extend his catch, then don’t give him no middle and expect the help from the baseline to come,” Schroder said of his approach to those moments. “… I think the last couple of games I and the team did a great job doing it, so we’ve got to keep doing it.”
THUNDER AT JAZZ
When: 8 p.m., Monday
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37 / HD 722, Dish 412, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751 / 1751)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640/98.1 FM