It hurts to lose a game like the Thunder lost last night, especially because this Thunder team was theoretically built to win games like that. The idea when you build a “Big 3”, as the Thunder did in bringing it Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play alongside Russell Westbrook. is pretty simple. You have three elite players who can make the game easier for each other, and you’ll always have someone to step up if the other two are struggling.
That didn’t happen for OKC’s Big 3 in game 2.
“Playoff P” was back to being “The P of March.” He went just 6-21, including 4-12 from deep, on some open attempts and some highly-contested jumpers. Russell Westbrook came through with 13 assists, but also finished 7 of 19 on shooting, and when no one else was hitting late, Russ was unable to take over the game like he has so many other times. Carmelo Anthony finished 6-18 for 17 points, including several big misses in the final moments. None of the big 3 finished with above 20 points, and collectively they went 0-14 in the pivotal 4th quarter.
Has this loss revealed the Thunder as frauds? Was game 1 a fluke?? Is Paul george already packing his bags for L.A.??? IS IT TIME TO PANIC????
This loss certainly exposed some flaws the Thunder have, but part of it was also bad luck. Some nights your shots just don’t fall, and after a magnificent game 1, the Thunder fell back to earth with their deep shooting, going a rough 11-35 from behind the arc. When that happens, it’s imperative to drive the ball inside, but the Thunder finished with only 40 points in the paint to Utah’s 50. Instead, OKC, particularly Russ and Melo, settled for difficult mid-range jump shots. They hit some, but not enough. In future games, they’ll hit more shots. If they go cold again, they need a better plan for attacking the paint. They can do it, but they need to show more discipline than they did last night.
The Thunder’s usual areas of strength — offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers — also failed them in this game. The Jazz mauled the Thunder on the boards, out-rebounding them by 10, including 5 more offensive boards. Part of that was due to foul trouble for Steven Adams, who ended up playing just 22 minutes and still fouled out. But Rudy Gobert also had early foul trouble, and the Jazz still killed the Thunder inside even without him, with Derrick Favors, who might have earned himself an extra few million in free agency tonight, absolutely dominating the glass. And while the Thunder did manage to force some turnovers, including a few great hustle plays from Westbrook and Corey Brewer, they couldn’t turn those turnovers into points- they managed only 13 points off turnovers, compared to 29 from the Jazz. That’s atrocious, but it also should balance out going forward. The Thunder forced more turnovers than Utah did, they just couldn’t turn them into points. They will do better at that going forward.
Bad shooting, losing the offensive rebounding battle and giving up so many points off turnovers are all bad signs, but if there’s a reason for optimism going into game 3, its this: despite all the things that broke Utah’s way, the Thunder still found themselves in a winnable, tie game. The Jazz also shot the ball terribly, and after a rough first half the Thunder went on a ridiculous 19-0 run in the third quarter. The Jazz were smothered by OKC’s defense during this run, coughing up the ball and taking bad shots. Russ took full advantage, pushing the pace in transition and set up multiple easy buckets for teammates By the end of the quarter, the Thunder were up 5 despite bad shooting nights from it’s 3 offensive stars and despite Steven Adams having spent most of the game on the bench in foul trouble. Someone just needed to step up and take this thing home.
Someone did step up, but unfortunately for the Thunder was it was Donovan Mitchell. After a quiet first 3 quarters after seemingly hobbled by a foot injury, Mitchell exploded in the 4th. He hit several tough shots including a truly outrageous floater and repeatedly drove inside and drew contact to earn free throws. The Jazz frequently had him walk the ball up, leaving Ricky Rubio to serve as a floor spacer- and after he failed to punish the Thunder for abandoning him in game 1, he burned them in game 2, going 5-8 on his 3 points attempts. With the ball in his hands more, Mitchell was able to score even more than in game one. The Thunder switched Paul George onto him down the stretch and it didn’t seem to matter. This kid is a problem.
Meanwhile, the Thunder devolved into their worst habits as the clock wound down. Russ, to his credit, tried to spread the ball around, and Steven Adams had 6 quick points when he re-entered the game mid-way through the fourth, only to finally foul out with just under 3 minutes to go. Even in his limited minutes, Adams was effective on the offensive glass in this one, grabbing 5 offensive rebounds, but his 6 fouls were emblematic of his struggles to contain Gobert on the other end. Without Adams, Russ’s efforts to move the ball around were mostly wasted, especially by some bad early shot clock attempts from Melo and PG. With the game on the line, none of the big 3 were able to deliver.
That’s bad, but I say again- it’s too early for panic. Just like game 1 wasn’t proof of a sweep, game 2 shouldn’t be taken as a sign imminent doom for OKC. The advantages the Jazz exploited last night are real, but they can also be remedied. Adams struggled to contain Gobert, and the team got killed on the boards when Adams sat. But a few of Adams’ fouls were plays where Gobert slipped by him and Adams fouled to force him to shoot free throws. The math is good on that in a vacuum (Gobert isn’t a good free throw shooter), but having Adams on the bench for long stretches of this series is untenable. Get rid of those fouls and Adams can stay on the court for most of the game. Do you think Favors goes off the way he did if Adams is out there most of the night? I doubt it. As for Gobert, Adams doesn’t need to dominate him, he just needs to fight him to a draw like he did in game 1, and the Thunder should be okay.
Donovan Mitchell looked unstoppable at the end of the game. The Thunder may have no answer for that- even switching Paul George onto him couldn’t slow the kid down. You know what? The Thunder will just have to live with Mitchell getting 25-30 a night, because the rest of the Jazz aren’t going to shoot the way they did last night again. Ricky Rubio isn’t likely going 5-8 on his 3’s again. Derrick Favors, career 20% 3 point shooter, won’t go 2-3 again.
Speaking of Favors, the Thunder should change up how they cover the pick and roll with Favors and Gobert- several times the Thunder trapped the ball handler aggressively, leaving Favors/Gobert rumbling to the rim in a 4-on-3, and did not send help quick enough to prevent quick interior passes between the duo. There’s no reason to blitz the pick and roll that aggressively-you can safely duck under the screen if Rubio is the ball-handler, and even with Mitchell, you’d rather him take a pull-up 3 than get to the rim. Just go under those screens guys!
Anyway, Mitchell is going to put up numbers. The Thunder should keep helping off the Jazz’s bad shooters and crowd the paint. Make the rest of the team beat you. They were able to last night, but their track record says that won’t continue. Rubio took 8 3’s last night! That’s a number the Thunder should want. He won’t nail 50% of his attempts over the whole 7 game series. If the Jazz’s shooters fall back to earth, Mitchell won’t need 30 to beat OKC, he’ll need 40 or 50.
This loss stings for OKC because, despite so much breaking the Jazz’s way, OKC had a chance to win with 2 minutes to go, and they couldn’t. On the other hand, the Jazz needed all those things to break their way to win a game where the Thunder’s stars shot a combined 19 of 58. The Thunder will be fine. Playoff P will return. Russ will have a Russ game. Pair that with a few good defensive adjustments and the Thunder should be able to be competitive in games 3 and 4 and return to Oklahoma with home court advantage restored.
If you were expecting a sweep, last night is a reason for panic. But if you were expecting a long, 6 or 7 game series, then a game 2 loss, while disappointing, isn’t surprising. This series, like the regular season that preceded it, was always going to be a roller coaster for the Thunder. Buckle up, but stay calm- there’s 5 games left to play.
Can the Thunder recover from their game 2 loss?
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