Eighty-two games come at you rapid fire. The playoffs are a slow burn. A war of attrition. A long game, but with immediate impact.
Today the Thunder and Houston Rockets began their two full days of preparation prior to Game 1 of the First Round, which will be at 8 p.m. CT on Sunday down in Houston. That will just be chapter one of at least four installments that Head Coach Billy Donovan and the Thunder will have against Houston – one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. All season long Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti has re-worked the roster, Donovan and his staff have developed the team and the players have worked tirelessly on the court to be ready for postseason ball.
Watch: Series Preview
“This is something where you’re somebody that will be guaranteed four times,” Donovan said. “After a period of time there becomes a familiarity for both teams, where you have to make some adjustments and some changes and lineups and those kind of things.”
“I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited about it,” Donovan continued. “I really think our guys have done a tremendous job in this regular season to put themselves in a position to be ready to play.”
On the opening day of the postseason, the Thunder had a chance to address the big picture. What will be important to take care of against the Rockets? What did the season series (Houston won 3-1) teach both teams about one another? How can the Thunder play its best brand of basketball? The talking points from Thunder leaders like Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson pinpointed transition defense, protecting the paint and defending the 3-point line. And then doing it all over again every single play.
Thunder Talk: Russell Westbrook
“How we play on the defensive side,” Westbrook stated. “They’re a great offensive team and in transition they do a great job of getting threes. We have to protect the 3-point line.”
“Every possession matters. We have to be locked into every little bit of detail. Down the stretch it could cost us a game,” Roberson explained. “We have to be locked in all 48 minutes, move on a string together, work hard and play all 48 minutes whether we’re up or down.”
Thunder Talk: Andre Roberson
As far as the series as a whole, Donovan and the Thunder’s team of analytics gurus and the assistant coaching staff will all have a hand in the breakdown and preparation for Houston. The Rockets’ substitution patterns, lineups, rotations and tendencies will all be broken down, and Donovan and the crew will assess the best way to deploy the many assets at their disposal.
At least 11 players for the Thunder are “rotation ready”, or guys who have seen major minutes on a consistent basis over the past few months. It’ll be up to the coaches to determine which players and which combinations should be on the floor together at which times.
“You’re looking at everything. You’re looking at what lineups on the floor were good for us, which lineups were not good,” Donovan said. “The thing you have to differentiate is what’s too small of a sample size to pass judgement on, what is a good enough of a sample size and what do your eyes tell you watching film.”
“When you watch film, there’s a little more clarity in the numbers,” Donovan added.
Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan
The Thunder comes into the series as the No. 6 six seed at 47-35 on the year, technically an underdog in the matchup with Houston, who is the No. 3 seed, who finished 55-27. With Westbrook at the helm and veteran leaders with playoff experience in Nick Collison, Taj Gibson and Norris Cole on the roster, the Thunder has plenty of knowledge and understanding of playoff basketball.
“When the ball gets thrown up and you go out there and start playing, I don’t think the seeding part necessarily becomes a factor when you’re playing and competing,” Donovan said.
Thunder Talk: Victor Oladipo
Don’t sleep on the crew of 25-and-younger players on the team either. Even if some of the youngsters are making their first postseason trip, Roberson, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter have all been a part of a Western Conference Finals. Their reps in big-time moments against prime-time players when the lights come on will certainly be a factor. As obvious as it may seem, when Game 1 tips off on Sunday night both teams’ records hop back to 0-0. From there, anything can happen.