Hawks vs. Thunder Preview: Q&A with Royce Young

Monday, December 9, 2013
By Robby Kalland

Oklahoma City Thunder v Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks host the Thunder on Tuesday night at Philips Arena in a match-up of the current third seed in each conference. The Hawks (11-10) are coming off back-to-back home wins over the Clippers and the Cavaliers. In both wins, the Hawks offense was clicking, shooting the ball well from all over the court, especially from three-point range where they went a combined 20-for-46 (43.5%) from deep.

The Thunder (15-4) are one of the NBA’s best teams and have won 10 of their last 11 games including a dominant win over the team with the best record in the League, the Indiana Pacers, on Sunday. The Thunder are in the top-10 in both offensive (8th) and defensive ratings (5th). They love to get out and run, ranking 5th in the NBA in pace, and currently score the third most points per game (104.7). They’re led by the NBA’s leading scorer Kevin Durant, along with explosive point guard Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who is emerging as one of the top young power forwards in the League.

I sent some questions to Royce Young of CBSSports.com and Daily Thunder of the ESPN Truehoop Network to get an idea of what the Thunder have been doing so well and what to expect from the Thunder against the Hawks.

The Thunder are known as an excellent offensive team, but their great defensive play is often not discussed. What does this team do so well defensively that has put them in the top 5 in the NBA in defensive rating the last two years?

Length and athleticism. Athleticism and length. But within that, the Thunder use those things well. You can be long and you can be athletic, but it doesn’t matter unless you play like it. Specifically, the Thunder have always been a team that allows very little at the rim, and forces a lot of long, contested 2-pointers – a really inefficient shot.

It’s been 17 games since Russell Westbrook’s return. Where is his game at compared to previous seasons and is there anything that he is still noticeably working on getting back?

Early on, he was really showing rust at the rim. Westbrook has never been an elite finisher, but as often as he gets to the rim, it was a major part of his game. But in the first few weeks back, he was missing a lot of contested layups that he was accustomed to making the last few years. It seems he’s starting to shake some of that off lately though. The speed and athleticism are still there, but little things like finishing and ball handling haven’t quite been.

Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are the clear leaders of the team and have been highly effective this season, as they have for the past few years, but this team seems to have more depth than previous OKC teams. What has the Thunder bench unit, particularly Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and Steven Adams, been able to do so well this season?

It’s funny, because coming in to the season, the bench was the major question mark surrounding the team. People were furious and confused as to why they didn’t spend in free agency to bring in help. Clearly, the front office felt like they had plenty all along. Jackson is a Harden-ish type player, someone that gets into the paint and creates for others. Lamb is an effective shooter and really good in two-man situations. Adams has been a pleasant surprise, rebounding and finishing extremely well. And then you’ve got the old solid staples like Nick Collison and Derek Fisher. The Thunder bench in the past has always been good, but it’s been focused around one player carrying it. That’s not really the case anymore. Like you said, it’s actual depth right now. Instead of just hanging on to a lead the starters may have given them, the bench is a weapon that can maintain and often extend advantages.

The biggest strength for the Hawks is their frontcourt with Al Horford and Paul Millsap. How will the Thunder match-up with those two and deal their ability to stretch the floor on offense?

Obviously the Thunder like their starting frontcourt duo against most any other, and despite his flaws, feel that Kendrick Perkins is built for these kinds of matchups. However, it wouldn’t shock me if the Thunder played small often against the Hawks, going with Durant at power forward and Ibaka at center. Durant has defended Millsap some in the past when he was with the Jazz, and Horford is more of a power forward-y type of player. If Durant can hold his own, that forces the Hawks to make a choice: Deal with a mismatch on the other end, or take one of your better players off the floor to even up?

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images

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