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The Thunder Will Have to Get Weird With Their Lineups If They Want to Survive Round 1

The biggest change Billy Donovan can make to get back into this series as it heads to Oklahoma City is thinking small. Like, really small. That, and other takeaways from Game 2 of Thunder-Rockets.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Thunder and the Rockets gave us a classic in Game 2 of their first-round series Wednesday. Russell Westbrook (51 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds) and James Harden (35 points, eight assists, and four rebounds) each had a monster performance, racking up the gaudy stats we have come to expect from them this season. The game was much more competitive than Houston’s 31-point blowout win in Game 1, as Oklahoma City led most of the way before the Rockets made a fourth-quarter comeback to win, 115–111. The Thunder missed a lot of opportunities to even the series in this game, but there are still a lot of positives they can take away from what happened, especially with the series moving to Oklahoma City, one of the toughest places to play in the NBA.

As Billy Donovan showed during the team’s run to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals last season, he isn’t afraid to go away from what worked for the Thunder in the regular season. He made some dramatic adjustments to the Thunder’s game plan and rotation over the course of Game 2. After his team was beaten so badly in Game 1, he didn’t have much of a choice. He cut Enes Kanter’s playing time in half and inserted Kyle Singler, who played in only 32 games all season, into the rotation. Not all of it worked, but it gave Donovan and his assistants more data and more film to look at as they try to come up with a plan for Game 3.

The Rockets don’t need to change much. Unlike the Thunder, who have to reinvent themselves on the fly to save their season, the Rockets can stick to the formula that has worked so well for them all year. All Houston has to do is win one of the next two games in Oklahoma City, and the series is practically over. The Thunder narrowed the gap between the two teams Wednesday, but they still have a long way to go. Here’s a look at five key things we can take away from Game 2, and what they mean for these two teams going forward:

1. Westbrook Is Who We Thought He Was

There was little doubt Westbrook was going to improve on his Game 1 performance, when he had only 22 points on 6-of-23 shooting. The Thunder are as dependent on their best player to score as any playoff team in recent memory. If Westbrook doesn’t crack the 35-point barrier in a game in this series, it’s hard to see them having any chance against the Rockets’ high-powered offense. However, unlike in Game 1, where he came out firing and took four 3s in the first quarter, he was more measured to start Game 2. He handed out three assists before he took a shot and attempted all eight of his first-quarter shots within 18 feet of the basket.

It was only once he got everyone else involved that he started hunting his own shots. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Westbrook had 16 shots out of isolation attempts in Game 2 after only six such shots in Game 1. Because Westbrook can always create a decent look for himself off the dribble, he doesn’t always need to be involved in screen action. Bringing more defenders into the play only makes it more likely that Westbrook will take a difficult shot with multiple defenders on him. The only time that helps the Thunder is when the man Harden is guarding screens for Westbrook and forces Harden to switch on to Oklahoma City’s MVP candidate. Harden picked up two fouls against him on that play in the fourth quarter Wednesday, and getting him in early foul trouble could change everything in Game 3.

Westbrook will be criticized for what happened in the fourth quarter in Game 2, when he seemed to shoot the ball every time he touched it. The Thunder offense stagnated, and his shot chart from the final 12 minutes of the game was not pretty, especially in comparison with Harden’s:

(ESPN)
(ESPN)

Oklahoma City may want to diversify its crunch-time offense, if only to conserve at least some energy for Westbrook on defense. Houston forces you to guard all five players on the floor, and the back-breaking 3 on Wednesday came with just under two and a half minutes remaining in the fourth, when Westbrook left Patrick Beverley wide open on the corner. Watch Russ on this play: He’s not helping on a drive, and he doesn’t even bother running out to contest the shot. He’s standing in place, with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

2. The Thunder Need a Better Plan When Westbrook Is Out

Oklahoma City was plus-11 in Westbrook’s 41 minutes in Game 2, which means they were minus-15 in the seven minutes he was off. If the team had just been able to play the Rockets even without its star, it would have won comfortably. Instead, the Thunder fell apart as soon as he came out. While that’s not terribly surprising (they had a net rating of minus-8.9 without Westbrook this season) some of the lineups they tried were dead on arrival.

In the last 1:30 of the first quarter, OKC didn’t have Westbrook or Victor Oladipo on the floor, leaving the offense at the mercy of rookie combo guard Semaj Christon, who has looked overmatched at the NBA level so far. He averaged 2.9 points per game this season on 34.5 percent shooting, including 19 percent from 3. According to the numbers at NBA Wowy, Christon scored 0.75 points per possession in the 782 minutes he played without Westbrook this season. He might as well be punting the ball out of bounds at the end of the shot clock, which would at least allow the Thunder to get back and set their defense. Instead, Christon is taking shots like this:

But only so much can be asked of a rookie. The guy who has to play better is Oladipo, who got a four-year, $84 million contract from the Thunder in October to be the no. 2 behind Westbrook. The 24-year-old is in his first postseason, and he’s making it painfully obvious: He has been miserable in this series, averaging 8.5 points per game on 19.2 percent shooting. It can’t be easy playing with a guard as ball-dominant as Westbrook, but Oklahoma City needs Oladipo to at least be the player he was in the regular season, when he averaged 15.9 points and 2.6 assists per game on 44.2 percent shooting. Oladipo has to keep the Thunder’s second unit afloat, especially with Enes Kanter being practically unplayable against Houston’s spread pick-and-roll attack.

3. Lou Williams Saved the Day for Houston

Coming to Houston has not been an easy transition for Lou Williams, who was having a career season for the Lakers before he was moved at the deadline. His minutes per game have remained steady, but he’s scoring fewer points on much lower shooting percentages in Houston. He’s used to surveying the court with the ball in his hands before making a move, and he’s much further down the pecking order in Houston than he was in Los Angeles. Williams is one of the rare elite shooters who becomes less efficient when he’s spotting up: Synergy has him shooting much better with a hand in his face (1.147 points per possession) than when he’s wide open (0.875).

Nevertheless, what Williams did in Game 2 is why the Rockets gave up their first-round pick to acquire him. With Harden and Ryan Anderson struggling from the field, Houston needed some instant offense from its bench, and Williams provided it. He had 21 points in 21 minutes, and was a team-high plus-18 for the game. When Williams gets on a hot streak, he’s as tough a cover as there is in the NBA. He can score from any angle and make shots with an insane degree of difficulty. The types of shots a defense wants to give up are exactly the types of shots that Williams is comfortable making:

Houston puts opposing defenses in tough spots because there’s nowhere to hide a poor defender on the perimeter. The Rockets play lineups with Williams and Eric Gordon spotting up off Harden, and since all three can stroke 3s, defenders can’t afford to help off any of them, creating wide-open driving lanes to the basket. Beverley is a capable scorer as well. The only guy who can’t consistently create his own shot is Trevor Ariza, and they often involve him in screens with Harden in order to prevent teams from hiding players on him.

4. OKC Played Smaller and Dropped Back in Pick-and-Rolls

Donovan tried an aggressive strategy to defend the Harden pick-and-roll in Game 1, and it did not work. He had his big men switching screens so that the other three defenders could stay home on their men, but he didn’t have centers who were mobile enough to pull that off; not like last season, when Donovan unleashed Serge Ibaka on the Warriors in his own version of the Lineup of Death. Game 1’s most viral moment came when Harden turned around Kanter like a ballerina on a switch:

In Game 2, Donovan had Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, and Kanter dropping back off the screen, effectively conceding the open jumper in order to wall off the paint. Harden had an off shooting night, going 7-for-17 from the field, so daring him to shoot made some sense. The problem was the Thunder big men still couldn’t stay in front of Harden, no matter how far off they were playing him. All dropping back did was give him a runway to attack the rim, which is why he wound up going 18-of-20 from the free throw line:

The more effective tactic the Thunder tried was going smaller, and Donovan wasted little time downsizing as the game went on. With Kanter’s role minimized, Oklahoma City had more time for Gibson at the 5, which opened up a bigger role for Jerami Grant at the 4. They even went tiny in stretches of the second half, with Singler playing as the de facto 5. It will be interesting to see how much rope Donovan will give his bigger defenders in a must-win Game 3.

5. What Is Left for Donovan to Try in Game 3?

While Donovan made significant adjustments in Game 2, he still has a couple more cards left to play for Game 3. He should look to what he tried against the Warriors in last season’s Western Conference finals for inspiration. The key to slowing down Golden State wasn’t the player guarding Steph Curry — it was the player guarding Draymond Green, since he was Curry’s primary partner in the pick-and-roll. The Thunder flipped that series on its head when they put Durant on Green, and then had him switch all of Green’s screens with Curry. Andre Roberson is the Thunder’s best option to guard Harden, but Harden is at his best when he’s coming off a screen, which is where Roberson should be meeting him. Donovan’s plan in Game 1 was sound; he just had the wrong guys executing it.

The downside of going small is usually matching up with the opposing team’s frontline in the post, but Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni almost never uses his big men in that role anyway. If Oklahoma City plays Roberson (6-foot-7 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) and Jerami Grant (6-foot-9 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) up front, they would have two players with the length and athleticism to hold their own on the boards and comfortably switch on Harden. That would leave Oladipo as Harden’s initial defender, which wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s a gamble worth trying in order to short-circuit the Rockets’ favorite play.

The other key to the Thunder’s run in last season’s playoffs was the way they used Roberson on offense. Instead of playing him off the ball, where no one would guard him, Donovan used him as a roll man, which allowed him to make plays on the move and attack the rim with open space in front of him. They had one ball handler (Westbrook) and one roll man (Roberson) surrounded by three shooters (Durant, Ibaka, and Dion Waiters), and they were almost impossible to stop. Grant and Roberson are decidedly not Durant and Ibaka, so the Thunder will need more shooting in the final spot in the lineup to make up for the lack of interchangeable offensive ability that their former stars offered.. I’m intrigued by the idea of ramping up the minutes for Doug McDermott, who came off the bench to score 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting.

A five-man unit of Westbrook, Oladipo, McDermott, Roberson, and Grant wouldn’t have a lot of size, but Oklahoma City’s big men haven’t been all that effective in the series anyway. The lineup would surround Westbrook with three legitimate threats from the 3-point line, and they could switch almost every screen that didn’t involve McDermott. Hiding McDermott on defense wouldn’t be easy, but he should be able to stay in front of Ariza when he is in the game. If Ariza is used as a screener, McDermott could trap Harden with the original defender, allowing the Thunder to live and die with Ariza knocking down open shots and making plays off the dribble. While that lineup is not what we are accustomed to seeing from the Thunder, the more unconventional they are, the better their chances are in this series.