OKC Thunder: Against Mavs, what to look for when the Thunder are on offense

Nic Rutledge / For The Transcript

Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams and Head Coach Billy Donovan talking during a timeout at the OKC Thunder Blue and White Scrimmage on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, at the Oklahoma City Blue's practice facility. Adams may play a greater role helping to facilitate the Thunder's offense.

OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s the first of a quartet of preseason games afforded the Thunder when they meet the Dallas Mavericks at 7 tonight inside Tulsa’s BOK Center. And when Oklahoma City has the ball, there are a couple of things to look for, independent of who’s on the floor.

One, how much of the old “play fast” philosophy can the Thunder maintain without Russell Westbrook as point guard.

Two, when the transition phase of each possession stalls, can they create quality shots nonetheless.

A year ago, “play fast” became an omnipresent phrase out of the mouths of general manager Sam Presti, coach Billy Donovan and players, too.

No longer, though, does OKC claim a bumper sticker identity. Instead, players are talking about ball movement and Donovan is saying things like he said following Monday’s practice.

“We’re going to have to play off each other,” he said. “We’re going to have to generate shots through one another.”

Theoretically, getting everybody involved, making everybody a threat in every possession, is a better way to play the game. Also, shots generated in transition — “fast break points” in the boxscore — will almost always be better opportunities than even the most optimal halfcourt offense generates.

It's not like the Thunder's three point guards transition deficient.

Chris Paul has been terrific in the open court throughout his career, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has natural subtlety and cleverness well suited to creating transition chances and Dennis Schroder — though not Westbrook fast — is still one of the fastest guards in the league.

No team wants to limit its transition chances. Every team wants every free and easy point it can score.

At the same time, OKC's no longer in the same position to force those chances.

It’s one reason why, at the Blue and White Scrimmage two days ago, it was interesting to see Thunder centers Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel with the ball in their hands at the free-throw line and higher, looking for a place to create.

Adams finished the scrimmage with three assists, tops on the day.

“Defenses have to react a certain way,” Noel said Monday. “We have a five man they may not expect to shoot 3s, but we’re able to pass the ball, make reads. It puts [their] five-man …and all the wings in tough positions.”

A common NBA term is “spacing” and directing an offense through a big man up top, removed from the paint, forces spacing, unclogging the lane, thereby opening space for greater movement without the ball, which should lead to the ball movement players have been talking about since camp began.

The Thunder could also put the ball in the hands of Danilo Gallinari up top, where he — unlike Adams and Noel — is very much a 3-point threat, creating more headaches for defending teams.

As long as Westbrook ran the show and as long as Paul George could create all by himself, scheming to create good shots wasn’t the same priority for OKC.

Now?

One day into training camp, Donovan ticked through the Thunder’s offense challenges, rhetorically asking how his team will get to the rim, get fouled, get good shots.

Spreading the floor and putting defenses in position to account for more things is one way.

So, too, is leveraging every transition opportunity, even if the raw number of opportunities decreases.

The Mavs are no great team and the game doesn't count. They are, though, another team and thus far the Thunder have only been guarded by themselves.

That ends tonight.

“It would be good,” Donovan said, “to see where we’re at.”

Tonight

Oklahoma City vs. Dallas

Time: 7 p.m.

Place: BOK Center, Tulsa

TV: ESPN

Radio: WWLS-FM 98.1, AM 640

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