The Grizzlies will turn around from last night’s 30 point blowout win over the Mavericks by traveling to Oklahoma City to face off against a great team in the Thunder. To help get prepared for the game tonight, I caught up with Reid Belew of Welcome To Loud City. Here’s what Reid had to say about the current state of the Thunder and tonigh’s matchup!
1) Paul George has had an MVP like season for the Thunder this year which will likely lead to home court in the first round of the playoffs. What has been the biggest difference for George this season compared to last?
This season has been so fun to watch because of him. He has shown a sense of mastery that wasn’t ever a part of his game. For a long time, he was labeled a “fake superstar” and compared to Gordon Hayward--purpose being to illustrate that he couldn’t ever carry a team but was as good of a second fiddle a team could have. That’s clearly not true anymore, for many reasons. One is that he’s shooting lights out. He was an elite distance shooter last year, but this year, it’s just different. He’s pulling up off the dribble, in people’s faces, and they just always seem to go in.
The second thing is that he’s using his body and movement so well. He isn’t a player who will blow by guys--he’s much more nuanced. He chooses his spots so carefully and he’s really tightened up his handle. That allows him to sort of go wherever he wants, especially coming off screens, where he lights people up. He’s been a real joy this year, and there’s no end in sight.
2) One of the knocks on Russell Westbrook has been that he plays too much hero ball. Has he gotten better at relying on his teammates like PG13 or does he still have a knack for trying to take over even when it’s not his night?
Well, that tendency is certainly much better than it has been in previous seasons. There’s no telling how hard it would be to unlearn court habits on the fly as he has. Anyone who’s played basketball more than 5 times understands that every player has tendencies, and they’re really hard to break. I think a critically underrated superstar trait is the ability to mitigate your own poor choices or preferences. This year, there’s a new version of Westbrook. Take that with a grain of salt, because since the ASB, he’s started shooting 3’s again. To start the season, he was throwing up 3’s and it was hurting the team, and much to his credit, he pretty much went cold turkey. I really admire him for that. He defers to PG more this season. He’s stepped it up on defense. He’s adapting his game to mesh with George more.
Now, when PG is out (Sixers game), Russ looks like MVP Russ, trying to do it all. TNT flashed this stat during the Sixers game that said when Russ has less than 20 FGA, the Thunder are 20-5. It’s much easier for him to have less than 20 FGA when PG is out there. I think he’s changed this year, and that change really only disappears when PG is out. They seem to have a friendship and companionship that exceeds that of Russ and KD, and I think you can see it on the court.
Has he totally left his hero ball ways? No, and he probably never will. But that’s not a bad thing when he chooses how and went to deploy that hero ball mindset. He’s shown he’s capable of doing that.
3) Steven Adams is arguably the most underrated player in the NBA. He seems to always make the right plays at the right time and does a lot of the little things you don’t see in the box score. What’s it been like watching him grow over the years and what strength of his helps out the Thunder the most?
To watch him over the years has been pretty remarkable. I remember when he was drafted, and I just didn’t really care. It was very much a shrugging type of reaction. We got a 7-footer who couldn’t really shoot and wasn’t elite in any way. Turns out, he is elite. He’s able to contribute in so many ways. The amount of space he creates for PG and Russ coming off screens is massive. He’s such an immovable object. Since Pekovic retired, I think Adams has taken up the mantle of the NBA’s strongest man.
His biggest contribution is his offensive rebounding. He’s getting around 5-6 a game. We just don’t’ talk about that like we should. Those are do-overs. When you mess up on a play, how insanely valuable is it that 5-6 times, you get a mulligan? It’s insane. He’s also a smart passer. I wish people said that more.
4) Looking ahead to tonight’s game, what matchup intrigues you the most?
You know, really anything involving Mike Conley, I’m all in. I might stan for Conley harder than any player in the league, including Thunder players. I love that dude’s game so much. Like Adams, he is the ultimate “not in the box score” type player. We all know he’s gonna put up 18 pts and ~7 assists a night, but what about the other stuff? He makes so few mistakes, is a really great defender, and the way he controls the game is so artful.
He’s a master at managing and controlling the pace of the game. It’s like the game and all its revolving circumstances are on a string for him. If basketball is chess, he’s a grandmaster. It’s a methodical, thoughtful, intuitive game, and he has the ability to give anyone fits. He’s got no weakness, and his primary strength is intangible. To me, watching Russ go up against a player like that is intriguing. Sort of a pseudo mind vs. body matchup.
5) The last time these two teams played was the day of the trade deadline. With the Grizzlies shorthanded due to multiple trades, the Thunder were able to take advantage and blow out the Grizz. The Grizzlies will be more equipped tonight compared to the first matchup, although the loss of Jaren Jackson Jr. stings. Do you see tonight being another blowout win for the Thunder?
You know, Brandon, I would really love to be nice here but I definitely see the Thunder winning this game. It’s ours to lose. I think without JJJ and Gasol, this is a tough one. I’m sorry, man
Bonus Question: The Thunder made an underated acquisition in Markieff Morris at the trade deadline and you recently wrote an article that won Best of SB Nation on the pickup. What have been the earlier returns on the pickup, and what do you expect out of Morris going forward into the playoffs?
I think he looked really good versus the Sixers. He had 17 points and 4 rebounds as a starter, which is excellent. My hope is off the bench he can be around a 12/5 guy. Once he learns how we play defense and buys in, he’s gonna give us a really solid bench, and that’s been a huge weak spot for us. Hopefully in the playoffs we always have PG or Russ on the court, but if we ever don’t, Schröder, Keef, Noel is a really nice foundation group for the bench. I think he could be really important for us.