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Thursday Bolts: 2.21.19

Thunder news release on the signing of Markieff Morris: “The Oklahoma City Thunder has signed free agent forward Markieff Morris, it was announced today by Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti. Per team policy, terms of the agreement were not released. Morris (6-10, 245) has appeared in 555 career games (330 starts) and registered career averages of 11.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 26.4 minutes with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. This season with the Wizards, he appeared in 34 games (15 starts) and averaged 11.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 26.0 minutes. Originally selected 13th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, the University of Kansas product shot a career-high 36.7 percent (76-of-207) from the three-point line during the 2017-18 season.”

Kevin Pelton (ESPN+) on the Western Conference playoff race: “Though the Warriors have just a two-game lead over the Denver Nuggets, a relatively favorable schedule should help them pull away for the top seed in the West, with Denver and the Oklahoma City Thunder most likely being 2-3 in some order despite the two hardest remaining schedules, according to BPI. That would account for three of the four top seeds in the opening round, with a furious battle for the last spot. The Portland Trail Blazers are fourth, a game ahead of the Houston Rockets and two up on the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz, but the schedule will work against them the rest of the way. Portland has a tough six-game road trip coming out of the break, including playing at Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. Meanwhile, San Antonio and Utah are the lone West teams among the five easiest BPI remaining schedules. Add in the Jazz’s superior point differential (plus-3.2 PPG, fourth best in the West), and they should be considered narrow favorites for fourth. BPI projections show them getting home court more than 45 percent of the time, with nobody else above 30 percent, while FiveThirtyEight’s projections also have Utah finishing with the fourth-most wins on average.”

Matt Moore (Action Network) on how Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson are combining to create the player OKC has always needed: “Historically in the playoffs with Westbrook and Durant, teams sent swarms at them and no one could make them pay from range; the problems only accelerated when Durant left. Paul George wasn’t full settled in last year — and struggled in the playoffs to boot — but there were also no perimeter salves to help get the Thunder out of a tight offensive spot vs. Utah. The Thunder need that third guy. They may have found him. And his names are Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson. The problem for the Thunder has been finding someone who could keep up with their defensive identity, who could run with Russell Westbrook on the break, who didn’t need the ball and who hit something, anything from deep if the defense didn’t account for them or chose to ignore them. That may be a bit much for Grant or Ferguson to shoulder night-in-and-night-out the rest of the way, but with their powers combined, it just might be enough to shift the tides.”

Erik Horne (Oklahoman) on the role of Steven Adams in the Thunder defense: “Prior to Jan. 1, the Thunder’s defense appeared impenetrable, giving up just 101.7 points per 100 possessions — a league-best mark which dropped to a miniscule 95.9 with Adams in the game. Since then, the Thunder has given up 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 21 games, 103.3 with Adams in the game. Part of it is the Thunder playing against better teams since Jan. 1. The schedule doesn’t soften in the final 25 games, as the Thunder is projected with the toughest remaining schedule of any team based on opponents’ winning percentage (.572). But another aspect is the opposition understanding Adams’ role and using it to its advantage. With Adams pushing out to the perimeter on guards, the backside rotation, often Jerami Grant or a guard such as Westbrook, has to be perfectly timed to catch Adams’ man in the event he can’t drop quickly enough. Adams thought dealing with post-up after bruising post-up as a rookie was tough in 2013, but it’s a different kind of tough now. “It’s more focused on stopping guards, pick and rolls and what not, then (dropping) back to the shooting bigs,” Adams said.”

Jackson Frank (FanSided) on if Jerami Grant can be the difference in the playoffs: “He’s a snug fit in head coach Billy Donovan’s aggressive pick-and-roll defense, can guard multiple positions and stretch the floor offensively. The primary drawback is his slender frame, which could potentially be problematic against brutes like Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and DeMarcus Cousins. But limiting those dudes is Adams’ responsibility. Grant’s competition for time at center behind Adams is Noel, who also boasts a gangly build, though lacks an offensive package beyond snagging lobs. Both are impactful defenders with similar flaws on that end; Grant is just a considerably better player overall. Increasing his run at the 5-spot come playoff time could elevate the Thunder past first-round fodder. Let Grant-at-center units feast against backup bigs who aren’t capable of being offensive hubs or bullying him inside. George’s MVP-worthy campaign is deservedly garnering much of the praise for his team’s growth this season, though it isn’t the only factor. The once-erratic Grant has sprouted, no longer teetering between reckless and resourceful chaos. He’s simply a livewire of the greatest variety.”

Zac Dubasik (Complex) on the Thunder organization saving sneakers from every player: “What that storage would eventually become, at least on the footwear front, was an archive that went on display at the Chesapeake Energy Arena for the team’s 10th anniversary season. “Every player that’s come through our organization has contributed,” says Mahoney. “Every person that’s come through our organization—player, staff, coach—everybody matters and everybody’s played a role. And as we look at the players, one unique way to mark each of them that comes through is to have pieces of what they’ve contributed, and the shoes are really a vital part of that and a concrete way showing what they were able to express.” The importance of sneakers to the game and culture of basketball has never been bigger than it has for the past decade, not only for the fans, but the players too. “It gives the guys on the court their own sense of style, their own sense of fashion,” says Thunder guard Andre Roberson. “That’s the only way they can kind of be themselves outside of the name on the back of the jersey.”

Jonathan Saponara (Hashtag Basketball) with a spicy take on why Terrance Ferguson is making Andre Roberson obsolete: “Terrance Ferguson is allowing opponents to shoot just 38% on field goals against him and .885 points per possession as a primary defender, which ranks him in the 66th percentile in the NBA, leading Synergy analytics to label him as a “very good” defender. Offensively, Ferguson has transitioned into a knockdown three-point shooter. In just his second year as a pro, Ferguson has increased his three-point percentage from 33.3% on 2.0 attempts last season to 38.7% on 3.6 attempts this season. In 13 games in January, Ferguson shot 47.9% from three on 5.5 attempts per game, a month in which the Thunder went on a six-game winning streak. Ferguson put forth his best scoring month in January as well, averaging 10.3 points per game. Not a stat that is going to jump off the page, but impressive nonetheless as Ferguson is usually the 4th or 5th option to score the ball in almost every possible Thunder lineup. His hot January has continued into February as Ferguson is averaging 9.0 PPG on 38% shooting from three, as the Thunder have improved to 5-1 in the month with wins over very good teams like Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.”

AJ Perez (USA Today) on Zion Williamson blowing out a pair of Nike PG 2.5’s last night vs UNC: “Former President Barack Obama mouthed what became evident soon after Duke freshman phenom Zion Williamson crumpled to the court during the most hyped regular-season NCAA basketball game in some time.  “His shoe broke,” cameras caught the nation’s 44th president saying as he pointed toward the fallen presumed No. 1 pick of the NBA draft. The shoe – a Nike PG 2.5 PE – soon became the focus after Williamson left the game early with a knee injury. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his top-ranked team dropped an 88-72 decision to No. 9 UNC that Williamson suffered “a mild knee sprain.” “For a shoe to fall apart – completely fall apart – came in one of the most highly anticipated games in a long time,” legendary sports executive Sonny Vaccaro told USA TODAY Sports. “This magnifies it. There was no NBA game going on and Zion had as much hype as anyone in a while. Tickets were going for thousands of dollars. The moon and the stars aligned and everyone in the world saw it.”

Around the League: LeBron says it’s time to actually try now…. Joel Embiid is out at least a week with a sore knee…. DeMarcus Cousins is getting more minutes for the Warriors…. Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle in a workout…. Why Zion Williamson’s injury is another example of why he shouldn’t have to wait on the NBA…. Under-the-radar teams to watch in the stretch run…. How the trade deadline changed teams’ offseason projections.