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Thunder uses potential assists to measure ball movement

MINNEAPOLIS – Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s eyes first scan for the opponent’s 3-pointers and his team’s assists when he picks up a stat sheet.

Over the course of the Thunder’s 3-game winning streak, he must have been pleased with what he saw. OKC averaged 30 assists per game.

“Generally when you see a high number of assists, that’s usually a good thing,” Donovan said. “But for me, I think that generating good shots is really critical, and in essence it comes down to every game who can generate the better shots. The team that can generate the better shots is generally going to have the better offensive night.”

When it comes to ball movement, the Thunder (241.9 passes per game) averages the fewest passes of any team in the league. Houston (246.2) ranks next to last. On Tuesday the two teams meet for their last regular-season clash.

The Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense is the second-most efficient offense in the NBA thanks to James Harden. That isn’t, however, the Thunder’s style of play. OKC continuously assesses its ball movement, and Donovan finds potential assists to be the most useful statistic to do so.

As an offense that relies on fast breaks, the Thunder’s style naturally cuts down on the number of passes in a possession. Of course, pace and passes aren’t perfectly correlated. The Hawks average over a possession per 48 minutes more than the Thunder, and they make 35 more passes per game. OKC could increase its passes per game without hurting its pace. But more passes doesn’t necessarily mean more good shots.

That, for Donovan, is where potential assists come in. For a team whose field goal percentage dipped below 40 percent against Dallas a week ago and surpassed 50 percent at Minnesota on Sunday, potential assists remove the Thunder’s inconsistent shooting from the equation.

With 23.3 assists per game, OKC sits in the bottom 10, but when it comes to potential assists, the Thunder (44.7) moves up to No. 18.

That isn't, however, how the Thunder analytics department breaks it down for the team.

“It’s not necessarily us comparing to the rest of the league,” Donovan said, “it’s more gauging us over (the season). You can look at what’s a high percentage, what’s a low percentage, what’s a middle percentage, and we can kind of gauge how good we’re trying to move the basketball. “

The Thunder’s 52.7 potential assists per game during the Thunder’s latest winning streak was well above its season average.

Even missed shots aside, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook’s ball distribution was especially effective. He logged 21 assists against the Lakers, and 15 against both the Pistons and Timberwolves.

Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said before Sunday's game that he expected the Thunder to run its first play to center Steven Adams. But Westbrook was predictably unpredictable. Instead, he threw a pass to Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson in the right corner to start the OKC’s scoring on catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Westbrook went to Ferguson again for his next assist, getting the 20-year-old into a rhythm early.

“That’s my job,” Westbrook said. “My job is to make sure everybody’s rolling. No matter what’s going on, make sure my guys have confidence and get the shots that they want.”

Related Photos
<strong>One of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook's jobs is to get the ball to teammates for good shots. [AP Photo/Paul Battaglia]</strong>

One of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook's jobs is to get the ball to teammates for good shots. [AP Photo/Paul Battaglia]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-6fbec656b99024d7dbd49da3c116a02e.jpg" alt="Photo - One of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook's jobs is to get the ball to teammates for good shots. [AP Photo/Paul Battaglia] " title=" One of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook's jobs is to get the ball to teammates for good shots. [AP Photo/Paul Battaglia] "><figcaption> One of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook's jobs is to get the ball to teammates for good shots. [AP Photo/Paul Battaglia] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-5abbe2b3f977514bc2ed3b2161b73b23.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jerami Grant (9) puts up a shot over Minnesota Timberwolves forward Dario Saric, of Croatia, (36) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma City won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jerami Grant (9) puts up a shot over Minnesota Timberwolves forward Dario Saric, of Croatia, (36) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma City won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jerami Grant (9) puts up a shot over Minnesota Timberwolves forward Dario Saric, of Croatia, (36) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma City won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-249105cf0a257c243a98f62f0aa16759.jpg" alt="Photo - Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jared Terrell (3) looks to pass against the Oklahoma City Thunders' Paul George (13) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jared Terrell (3) looks to pass against the Oklahoma City Thunders' Paul George (13) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jared Terrell (3) looks to pass against the Oklahoma City Thunders' Paul George (13) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-70d561c3ee9d66b920ef69bf953ea131.jpg" alt="Photo - Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dunks during the first half of a NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Towns finished with a game-high 53 points as Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dunks during the first half of a NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Towns finished with a game-high 53 points as Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dunks during the first half of a NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Towns finished with a game-high 53 points as Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-7727075699f069c1fdb20a6a188f780a.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Keita Bates-Diop (31) during the second half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Westbrook had a triple-double on the day as Oklahoma City won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Keita Bates-Diop (31) during the second half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Westbrook had a triple-double on the day as Oklahoma City won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Keita Bates-Diop (31) during the second half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Westbrook had a triple-double on the day as Oklahoma City won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e503b9188afee3d6fa49f718c24bfd53.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) hugs Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) after an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) hugs Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) after an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) hugs Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) after an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. Oklahoma won 132-126. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-97df558d416486ddb742560073b570ad.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) drives around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins during the second half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) drives around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins during the second half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) drives around Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins during the second half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-1c51a070bed70fcdc65d7e0f6ed8d4a8.jpg" alt="Photo - Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, of Senegal, (5) is fouled by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson (23) as he goes up for a shot during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, of Senegal, (5) is fouled by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson (23) as he goes up for a shot during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, of Senegal, (5) is fouled by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson (23) as he goes up for a shot during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-123bdd0753aba1ebed56fdc29669deb0.jpg" alt="Photo - Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives against Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, of New Zealand, (12) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives against Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, of New Zealand, (12) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives against Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, of New Zealand, (12) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c10e85bb2bb78835ae86321a4fef12a4.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives against Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jared Terrell (3) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)" title="Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives against Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jared Terrell (3) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)"><figcaption>Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives against Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jared Terrell (3) during the first half of a NBA basketball game Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)</figcaption></figure>
Maddie Lee

Maddie Lee followed an NBA team from Seattle to Oklahoma City, she just took a 10-year detour in between. Lee joined the Oklahoman in October 2018 as a Thunder beat writer, fresh off a stint in Oxford, Miss., where she covered Ole Miss for the... Read more ›

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