Andre Roberson chased down a driver who was barreling down the lane. On his watch, it’s hard to get a shot off. After his fellow wing swatted the ball away, Carmelo Anthony picked it up, and pitched it up the sideline to Russell Westbrook.
The lightning-quick Thunder point guard pushed the ball into the middle of the paint and gently took his time, waiting until the proper moment when Anthony had caught up to the action. Primed to walk into a catch and shoot three, Anthony nailed it.
The play was a glimpse of what the Thunder can hope basketball looks like all season long – stifling defense that turns into a high percentage shot on the offensive end. Head Coach Billy Donovan didn’t get to see that every single possession on Sunday afternoon as the Thunder narrowly beat Melbourne United, of Australia’s NBL, 86-85. That’s to be expected, however, at this early stage of U.S. Cellular Thunder Training Camp. It’s going to be a long process all season long as the Thunder tries to gel as a group.
“Shots weren’t falling, but defensively as the game went on, we were able to settle down and buckle down and get the stops we needed,” Anthony said.
The Thunder didn’t have a strong offensive night, but they certainly made up for it with a strong defensive performance. Melbourne shot just 34.6 percent from the field, including 11-for-31 from three-point range while turning the ball over 17 times. After the first quarter, the Thunder held its Australian foe to an average of just 18.3 points per quarter.
As a result, that aforementioned idyllic sequence between Roberson, Westbrook and Anthony wasn’t actually the play of the game. With 15 seconds remaining, Melbourne had the ball with a chance to take a lead. Fourth-year man Josh Huestis came up huge by swatting floater attempt into the second row before the Thunder’s final defensive stand. If it hadn’t been for Huestis, Melbourne’s shot may have fallen and the Thunder would have been left staring at a deficit with just a few seconds to play.
“(Huestis) came out of nowhere, ‘eh?” center Steven Adams asked with incredulity.” I couldn’t see him at all and he came out of nowhere. It was like, “Wow, that guy is awesome.’”
On the ensuing inbounds play, center Steven Adams recognized a Melbourne guard had shaken free and had would have had a wide open angle to the rim. He called for a late switch, which bogged down the play long enough for Paul George, Semaj Christon and Huestis to rush over. Once again, Huestis was the one who came away with the decisive block.
“I just knew they were running some sort of wheel action for the ball,” Adams explained. “90 percent of the time they’re going to pass into that corner anyway. I was just making sure I could see the guard and I saw he got hung up by a step or two. I just switched on out.”
“Steven is one of the smartest defensive players that I’ve ever been around. He sees the game from a lot of different angles and sees it a few seconds ahead,” Huestis said. “A big guy being able to switch out like that and read that says a lot about his instincts.”
Adams played a huge role offensively for the Thunder tonight as well. With the Thunder not shooting well from the floor, just 34.8 percent overall and 25 percent from three-point range, there were plenty of loose offensive rebounds available. Making the most of those chances, Adams battled his way to six offensive rebounds that lead to 12 points. His physicality down low made a major impact tonight, but ever-humble, he credited the shot selection of his teammates.
“The offensive rebounds come when you take good shots within the system because you’re positioned,” Adams said. “It was moreso our focus was on taking good shots within the possession.”
By the Numbers
4 – Blocked shots for Josh Huestis in just 10:45 of play, including the two biggest defensive plays of the game
7 – Assists for Russell Westbrook in 28 minutes of action, to go with nine points and five rebounds
36-26 – The Thunder’s edge in points in the paint in the game, where Melbourne shot just 13-for-35
The Last Word
“I want to thank Melbourne for coming here and playing. I really appreciate the effort they gave and how they competed. It was a great game for our guys on many fronts. Their aggressiveness took us out of some rhythm and flow, which was good. Us having to work through that was really important.” – Head Coach Billy Donovan