Thunder Can't Find Answer For Hawks Small Ball
By Randy Renner, Senior Writer
When Dwight Howard’s back stiffened up on him Monday morning at the Hawks shootaround head coach Mike Budenholzer had a feeling he might not be able to play and he was already formulating a plan if his All-Star big man had to sit.
When Thunder fans found out Howard would for sure miss the game, most probably figured his absence would clear the way for Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to clean up down low.
Instead just the opposite happened and the Thunder ended up with a big problem when the Hawks went small.
“There were some great challenges for us with matchups,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan admitted after the game.
Most of that was trying to deal with 6-8 forward Paul Millsap starting at center instead of Howard and trying to contain point guard Dennis Schroder.
The Thunder didn’t do a good job on either with Schroder slicing and dicing his way to 31 points and Millsap adding 30, combine that with OKC’s inability to get a stop when absolutely needed and you end up with a 110-108 loss.
“We really got hurt with ball containment,” Donovan said. “We had a really hard time trying to contain the ball when they went small. We had a lot of different guys try to guard Schroder.”
No one was very effective but the Thunder managed to fight back from five down early in the 4th quarter to lead by six, 104-98, after a Russell Westbrook pull-up jumper. After that the Hawks finished the game with a 12-4 run on 5-for-7 shooting while the Thunder went just 2-for-9 over the same stretch.
Westbrook had another big night but most of his teammates did not.
Russ finished with 46 points on 16-for-33 shooting overall and 3-for-10 on threes. The only other Thunder players in double figures are names you don’t usually find with those numbers. Jerami Grant came off the bench to score 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting (3-for-3 on threes) and Andre Roberson added 14 on 5-for-14 shooting (3-for-9 on threes).
Thunder bigs Adams, Kanter and Domas Sabonis were limited in points and shots. Kanter had eight on 4-for-5, Adams six on 2-for-4 and Sabonis 0 on 0-for-3.
OKC again missed Victor Oladipo dearly at both ends of the floor. He worked quite a bit on some things during warmups but Donovan said he may not be that close to returning since he has yet to practice again with the team and “he can’t do anything with his (sprained) right hand.”
The Hawks, despite their small lineup sold out to pack the paint, daring the Thunder to shoot from the perimeter, OKC put up 35 threes but hit just 10. Atlanta also put the brakes on the Thunder’s normally potent transition game.
Oklahoma City was 3rd in the NBA in fast break points coming in but managed just two points on 1-for-6 shooting.
“They did a really good job neutralizing our bigs, sold out to stop us inside. They really packed the lane,” Donovan said. “You’d liked to have been able to get the bigs more shots but they were doubling up.”
Despite all that the Thunder still had a chance to tie or win the game at the end.
After a Millsap 10-footer pushed the Hawks ahead 110-108 with :12.7 left Westbrook drove the length of the court, missed a 5-foot jumper, got his own rebound and had his layup attempt blocked out of bounds by Kent Bazemore. Westbrook then launched a 3-ball off the inbounds pass, which also missed. Adams grabbed the rebound and jammed the ball into the net just a tick after the final buzzer.
Donovan was not happy the officials decided to swallow their whistles in those closing seconds.
“I thought Russell got fouled on the three and I thought he got fouled on the drive to the basket,” he said. “When Russell goes to the basket and gets hit a foul should be called.”
No question about that, but no-calls weren’t the reason the Thunder lost this one.
The Thunder lost this one because they couldn’t get a stop when they absolutely had to have one, in fact they couldn’t hardly get a stop at all in the 4th quarter when Atlanta shot 57.9 percent.
And during those same final 12 minutes, after shooting 76.9 percent (10-for-13) in the first eight minutes of the quarter the Thunder couldn’t hardly hit a shot in the final four shooting just 22.2 percent.
The Thunder will try to bounce back on the road, heading first to New Orleans for a Wednesday game against the Pelicans and then to Boston for a Friday night date with the Celtics.
The team returns home to host the Timberwolves on Christmas night.