Chili Bowl be­gins its six-day run on Mon­day

Tulsa World - - Sports - By John Rit­te­nouRe • FoR the tulsa WoRld

With 355 driv­ers from 33 states and five coun­tries con­verg­ing on Tulsa for the 33rd an­nual Lu­cas Oil Chili Bowl, get­ting ev­ery­thing to fit within the con­fines of the River Spirit Expo Cen­ter con­tin­ues to be a chal­lenge ev­ery year. Time man­age­ment is also a chal­lenge, so for the first time, the Chili Bowl has be­come a six-day event, giv­ing fans one more day of rac­ing. It all gets started Mon­day.

The ad­di­tion of a day will re­sult in a slight change in the qual­i­fy­ing for­mat. With five days of qual­i­fy­ing, only the top two driv­ers each night will lock into Satur­day's main event in­stead of three, like in the past. That locks in 10 driv­ers, with the re­main­ing 14 starters com­ing from Satur­day night B-mains.

Chili Bowl co-pro­moter and founder Em­mett Hahn sees the changes as a pos­i­tive for ev­ery­one.

“For the fans and our help. When you look at it, ev­ery­thing is a win-win,” Hahn said of the changes. “It will be a bet­ter race track, get out ear­lier, and it spreads out the top driv­ers dur­ing the week. There is not a neg­a­tive to it.” The added night is a plus for those who don't al­ready have tick­ets. “For those peo­ple who can't get a re­served seat, this is per­fect for them,” Hahn said.

Once again many big-name teams from many forms of rac­ing have en­tered mul­ti­ple-car teams. Lead­ing the way is Keith Kunz, who is bring­ing 11 cars to the show. As a car owner, Kunz has won the past four Chili Bowls. Two-time cham­pion Christo­pher Bell re­turns in a Kunz car along with Rico Abreu, who won in 2015-16.

“The A team is com­ing back,” Hahn said with a smile. “We are go­ing to have all the stars here. The

of­fense and a sub­stan­dard shoot­ing start from its for­mer Most Valu­able Player.

A sea­son ago, the loss of An­dre Rober­son hurt the Thun­der's post­sea­son hopes. This sea­son, OKC is No. 1 in de­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency (102.9 points al­lowed per 100 pos­ses­sions) with­out Rober­son touch­ing the floor.

“We preach team de­fense so it's never truly one-on-one with us,” said for­ward Jerami Grant, who's strength­ened the start­ing lineup in the wake of the Carmelo An­thony trade this past sum­mer. “The ba­sis of our de­fense is if some­body is beat, there's al­ways some­body there to help.”

Good, be­cause the Thun­der's 3-point and free throw per­cent­ages rank among the worst in the league. They are prob­lems based on a ros­ter built for speed, not com­fort, the length and ath­leti­cism plan of gen­eral man­ager Sam Presti to put a le­gion of multi-po­si­tional ath­letes around West­brook in the post-Kevin Du­rant land­scape.

It doesn't help the Thun­der's 20th-ranked of­fense when Patrick Pat­ter­son and Alex Abrines — needed perime­ter floor spac­ers off the bench — are shoot­ing 32.7 and 32.3 per­cent, re­spec­tively, from 3-point range.

“It's less pres­sure on Russ and PG (Paul Ge­orge) and those guys to pro­vide points ev­ery night,” said Pat­ter­son of what hap­pens when him and Abrines hit shots.

Those are play­ers re­ceiv­ing fewer than seven shots per game com­bined, how­ever.

De­spite lit­tle con­cern in­side the Thun­der, West­brook's on­go­ing bat­tle with his shot is an is­sue. He is tak­ing three times as many shots as the afore­men­tioned bench play­ers, but is see­ing them fall at his low­est rate since his sec­ond sea­son. He's thrived in ev­ery area but scor­ing ef­fi­ciency.

So, how does OKC still sit third in the Western Con­fer­ence?

On Satur­day, the Thun­der started 1-of-10 from the field, go­ing four min­utes be­tween Ge­orge bas­kets, yet only trailed by two points mid­way through the first quar­ter. Amid a league where shoot­ing is hoarded, it was a case study in the team's al­ter­na­tive method to suc­cess.

LaMar­cus Aldridge shred­ded the Thun­der for 56 points and 16 free throws on Thurs­day, but on Satur­day had just 14 shot at­tempts and one free throw at­tempt. He re­ceived the ball against Grant in the post, and Ter­rance Fer­gu­son slid from the back­side to dou­ble team him. Fer­gu­son's head was on a swivel. He looked like he was run­ning sui­cides sprints be­tween the 6-foot-11 Aldridge and his de­fen­sive as­sign­ment in the op­po­site cor­ner, re­treat­ing quickly after Aldridge passed out of the post.

“I think at one point I didn't know if we'd get to 50 at the half,” Dono­van said. “The thing that was en­cour­ag­ing to me was we came out of the locker room and we de­fended closer to our iden­tity than we'd been for most of the year.”

Of­fense has been the is­sue, and so much of the Thun­der's of­fense comes down to West­brook. He was shoot­ing nearly 49 per­cent from the field to start the sea­son — more at the rim, more free throws, fewer 3-point­ers — be­fore a nasty left an­kle sprain in mid-Novem­ber.

If and when that rhythm re­turns, OKC still will have ac­cu­mu­lated scrapes and scratches from how it wants to play. West­brook wears them nightly, a re­minder of what the Thun­der leans on.

“I think ev­ery­one in this locker room tries to play de­fense first,” Schroder said. “That's our iden­tity.”

TULSA WORLD FILE

Christo­pher Bell of Nor­man com­petes in the A-Main race at the Chili Bowl at the River Spirit Expo Cen­ter on Jan. 11, 2018.

TULSA WORLD FILE

Rico Abreu (left) cel­e­brates win­ning the A Fea­ture cham­pi­onship race at the Chili Bowl Na­tion­als with his team owner Keith Kunz at Expo Square in Tulsa on Jan. 17, 2015.

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