- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
MINNEAPOLIS – NBA coaches always want their teams to learn from previous games and matchups. It’s rare that the players get a chance to prove it to them so quickly.
Head Coach Billy Donovan is preparing his Thunder squad for the Minnesota Timberwolves for the second time in less than a week as the Northwest Division rivals clash on Friday night in Minneapolis. It would already have been a matchup fraught with intensity because of the division implications and the talent level of both squads. But the proximity of the games on the schedule and the way it ended on Sunday with a Carmelo Anthony three-pointer that was one-upped by an Andrew Wiggins buzzer-beating heave creates an extra layer of intrigue for fans.
For the Thunder itself, they’re more focused on what it can do inside the entire 48 minutes at a higher level.
“There’s going to be a familiarity with their team and our team. Can we come out and do the things better in this game than we did the first time we played?” Donovan asked. “You’re just looking for that consistency level each and every game to become more and more consistent at the things you’re trying to get better at.”
At least in the intervening days and in its one test against the Indiana Pacers, the Thunder seems to have made some strides. It’ll be different when it’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Ricky Rubio attacking the paint and blocking off driving lanes, but the Thunder is encouraged by the day-to-day, gradual steps that it’s taking. A 114-96 victory that featured a 54-28 edge in points in the paint will do that.
“We certainly don’t have everything figured out but the progress was really made in a positive way,” Donovan said. “We did a good job defensively, playing against a team that likes to play fast and get out in transition and score a lot of points.”
“Offensively, we got to the deep paint a lot more. We got to the free throw line a little bit more,” Donovan continued. “The things that we’re trying to focus and concentrate on, they’ve done a good job making some strides in those areas.”
Progress isn’t always linear, so the Thunder knows it very well may face a setback against Minnesota. And it wouldn’t be altogether surprising given how much of a chore it is to go against a Tom Thibodeau-led team, especially one with depth along the perimeter and the front line. So with that the Thunder comes into the game with an even keel – with the understanding of what they need to do at a higher level against the Timberwolves with the context that this is just gave number five out of 82.
“I always think there’s a balance between living in the here and now and also seeing the big picture,” Donovan explained. “To me, it’s a never-ending process of getting better and improving from day to day.”
Much attention has been placed on the additions the Thunder has made this season, and rightfully so. Anthony, Paul George, Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson and Terrance Ferguson all figure to be a part of the rotation. But the straw that stirs the drink will be Russell Westbrook.
Both on Wednesday against Indiana but also in the first matchup with the Timberwolves, Westbrook was sensational. It’s going to be a continuing process for him to get all of his teammates humming at high gear, but what’s most important is that Westbrook is rolling at his usual clip. Coming off a 28-point, 16-assist, 10-rebound triple-double, it seems that’s exactly what he’s up to.
“We came here for you. We came here because we believe in what you can do and what you can bring to the game,” Anthony said of his encouragement to Westbrook early on. “We don’t want you to stop doing that. We want you to be that player and be that person. We’ll fit in. We’ll do a great job of fitting in around him. He’s taking that advice.”
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– With Paul George’s foul trouble on Wednesday night, Donovan had more opportunities to play Josh Huestis and the versatile forward racked up nearly 26 minutes of playing time. During his stint he grabbed three rebounds and knocked down a pick and pop three-pointer, but more than anything he showed he can be mixed into the rotation and defend players like Indiana’s Thaddeus Young and Minnesota’s Shabazz Muhammad.
- “Josh, give him a lot of credit. He’s worked really hard,” Donovan said. “He’s been on a process and a journey here. He’s gotten better. He’s got a better understanding of how he needs to play and what we need him to do.”
– Another player who knocked down a three-pointer off the bench on Wednesday was Patrick Patterson, who is still working his way back into rhythm off his knee procedure. In 16:30 of action against Indiana, Patterson had his best game thus far according to Donovan.
- “He knows his body, he knows the rhythm he needs to get into and he knows it’s going to take time but I’m seeing constant progress out of him which is encouraging,” Donovan said. “Patrick is going to be a key ingredient to our team.”
– Anthony knocked down three three-pointers of his own against Indiana, and remains the Thunder’s leading scorer at 24.8 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting. He’s just 31.3 percent from the three-point line so far as he tries to find a rhythm, but he’s taking eight three-pointers a game. Many of them are coming as second chances after the Thunder snags an offensive rebound.
- “Those kick-out threes off an offensive rebound are some of the biggest shots in the game today,” Anthony said. “The defense is kind of on their heels, they’re scrambling going for the rebound. It sucks the air out of them when you’re able to knock down the three on the kick out or somebody knocks the ball out and you get a good look at the basket.”
– A major part of Anthony’s contributions in the NBA have come not just in his magnificent scoring ability, but in his charity work off the floor. Anthony is still very locked in on the hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, and is active in making sure he and others don’t take their eye off the ball.
- “A lot of people are trying to do so many things down there,” Anthony said. “There’s so much damage that we have to fix and look into and continue to do on a day to day basis. It’s not going to happen overnight. We have to continue the efforts. We have to continue raising money, raising awareness and keep people looking down there.”
– The phenomenon of Hoodie Melo is still in full force, moving from social media into real life inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. Fans have flocked to the building in “Hoodie Melo” hooded sweatshirts. What had been a personal declaration of a renewed focus and intensity has now turned into a brand for Anthony’s next professional chapter.
- “The timing of it is perfect timing for it,” Anthony grinned. “It gives a new life, a new energy, a new focus.”