SALT LAKE CITY — About 30 minutes before the curtain was pulled back and media was allowed into the Energy Solutions Arena for the Thunder’s shootaround, I had planned on asking Thunder coach Scott Brooks how he would handle his point guard rotation tonight.
It was a pressing problem for the coach because he didn’t have more than one healthy point guard, starter Russell Westbrook. And Utah’s guard play, with starter Deron Williams and backups Eric Maynor and Ronnie Price, is one of the best in basketball. But the Thunder issued a press release which provided the answer just before the team opened its shootaround. Kyle Weaver had been recalled from the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League and will be in uniform tonight against the Jazz. With Kevin Ollie and Shaun Livingston both out with knee ailments, Weaver will play extended minutes behind Westbrook.
The emergency duty the Thunder has called on Weaver to provide is what makes the second-year guard valuable. The 6-foot-6 guard can play multiple positions while also being a pest on defense and an asset as a spot-up shooter. Thunder coaches specifically had Weaver work on his point guard skills in the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues for moments like this.
“Kyle needs to just run the team,” Brooks said. “Get us in, make plays offensively. Defensively, he’s solid. He has great length. He’s a position defender. He uses his body well and he’s gotten stronger. I think he’s improved. He’s going to get an opportunity tonight and I expect him to play well.”
For Weaver, it’s the opportunity he’s waited on all season, one that has seemed to take much longer to arrive than the 14 games it’s been. Weaver has played in only two games this season, averaging 5.5 points, 2.0 assists and 1.5 rebounds in 15 minutes, his partial playing time coming only in blowouts, 14 of those minutes during the 14-point loss at Orlando. It’s been a frustrating transition at times for a player who, as a rookie, played in 56 games, 19 as a starter, and averaged 20.8 minutes.
“You’re a competitor,” Weaver said. “You want to be out there, especially after having that first year where you did have a few chances to be out there on the floor contributing. But it’s a learning process, too. A lot of players go through this. Some of the best players go through it or have been through it. I’ve just got to take it for what it’s worth, and the time that I’m out there just pick up on things.”
Last season’s experience, Weaver said, will help him go into tonight’s game with confidence and poise when his number is called. He now knows what to expect rather than having to be thrust into a backup role while still being unsure of himself.
“Last year was definitely a big help, being able to be out there on the floor,” Weaver said. “It makes everything a bit smoother and hopefully I’ll be a lot more comfortable out there.”
Ollie, who had been the team’s calming force off the bench behind Westbrook, said his biggest advice to Weaver is to take command of the offense.
“Be confident,” Ollie said. “I know he has great belief in himself and knows the team is behind him. Just be assertive out there. Be a leader. As the point guard, your voice has to be projected over everybody. And they got to know that you’re in command.”
KEYS TO THE GAME
In identifying the keys to tonight’s game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks started with, well, defense of course.
“We’re going to try to take away as many paint points as we possible can,” Brooks said. “They want to get to the basket, they want to cut hard. And they do. They’re one of the best screen-setting teams and coming off screens. Obviously there a very well coached basketball team. But we just can’t allow them a lot of paint points.”
Brooks also said the Thunder has to match Utah’s physical play and avoid allowing the Jazz to let their toughness dictate what the team does offensively. Protecting the basket, closing out on shooters and getting back in transition, Brooks said, will be vital to OKC’s chances for victory.
“We have to have a great five-man defensive effort,” Brooks said. “This is a team that runs their offense. They don’t break their offense many times throughout the game. Deron Williams has the ability to break it off and drive to the basket and create for himself. But they execute.”
OLLIE TO HAVE MRI ON KNEE
Kevin Ollie said his right knee became unbearably painful during the first quarter of Sunday’s road loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He will have a MRI on Wednesday in Oklahoma City to diagnose the cause for the discomfort.
“When I explode it hurts, but when I’m running it’s fine,” Ollie said. “That’s the frustrating thing. In basketball you have to jump. You can’t go out there and play cautious and whatnot. So I think I’m hurting myself and most importantly I think I’m hurting my team.”
OKUR TO PLAY TONIGHT
Jazz center Mehmet Okur, who has missed the past three games with flu-like symptoms, said he doesn’t feel 100 percent but will play tonight.
Okur said he was dragging a little Tuesday morning and isn’t sure how many minutes he will play tonight. Okur said he struggled a little with re-acclimating to everything on the court but added he felt better Tuesday morning
“Hopefully I’ll be close to 100 percent tonight,” he said.
In nine games, Okur ranks fourth on the Jazz in scoring at 14.3 points per game and second behind Carlos Boozer at 6.8 rebounds per game.
COLLISON OUT, IBAKA IN
Nick Collison will miss his second straight game with a sore knee. Rookie forward Serge Ibaka again will receive Collison’s minutes as the backup power forward. Brooks liked what Ibaka provided at Los Angeles and said he needs to do the same things defensively against the Jazz that he did against the Lakers.
“I thought he did a great job of getting us some extra possessions defensively with his effort and shot-blocking ability,” Brooks said. “And he runs the floor well and sets great screens.”
WILLIAMS ON WESTBROOK
Utah point guard Deron Williams had high praise for Thunder guard Russell Westbrook on Tuesday morning following the Jazz shootaround.
“He’s a great scorer, great at getting into the lane and making things happen and creating havoc down there,” Williams said. “So I just got to try to stay in front of him and contain him on pick and rolls.”
Williams called Westbrook one of the fastest and most athletic point guards in the league and noted that he uses his speed and quickness to try to beat you.
Utah has historically been one of the toughest places to win in the NBA. The Jazz have an incredible 477-162 home record over the past 16 seasons and enter tonight’s game with a home mark of 105-24 over the past three seasons.
“Great crowds,” explained Scott Brooks. “It’s always been a great building. And the building, the way it’s set up, basically the crowd is right on top of you. And it’s kind of like our place where it’s loud no matter what time of the year it is, opening game through January, February. And when the playoffs are here they even take it up another level. They play well at home. They just have a great comfort level in this building.”
KEVIN DURANT “MINI-MOVIE” TO AIR TONIGHT
During tonight’s Fan Night coverage on NBA TV, the network will air a “mini-movie” of Kevin Durant. It’s a 1 minute, 47 second feature that shows Durant in a private workout setting, practicing with Team USA and features stand-alone shots of Durant talking about himself as a player.
“Deron is one of the best point guards in the game. Surprisingly, he’s never made an All-Star team. I voted for him. Make sure you tell him that.” — Thunder coach Scott Brooks on Jazz guard Deron Williams.