Ahead of this pivotal game 3, here are 3 adjustments that the Thunder need to make tonight to improve their chances of stealing a win on the road.
1. Keep Adams on the Court (No Soft Fouls)
For all the attention each team’s star guards get, this series may very well hinge on the battle between Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert at center. In game 2, Adams played only 22 minutes due to foul trouble, eventually fouling out for good with 3 minutes to play. Predictably, the Thunder were murdered on the glass with Adams playing so few minutes- even when Gobert was also sitting with foul trouble, Derrick Favors obliterated OKC on the boards, finishing with 16 rebounds total, 8 of them on offense. The Thunder used Jerami Grant in Adams’ place, and while such a small ball line-up was effective during a huge run in the 3rd quarter, it simply could not keep the Jazz big men from getting backbreaking rebounds for most of the game. Curiously, Patrick Patterson saw only 9 minutes in this one, even with Adams on the bench for such long stretches.
The Thunder need Adams out there. In game 1, when Adams played 37 minutes, the Thunder outrebounded the Jazz by 4 and each team got 9 offensive rebounds. In game 2, the Jazz outrebounded the Thunder by 10, and had 15 offensive rebounds to OKC’s 10. Adams has had his struggles with Gobert, but in game 1 he was at least able to fight him to a draw. Keeping Adams on the court is key in this one. One easy way to do that- two of Adams fouls came by grabbing Gobert when he was already past Adams to force him to shoot free throws. That makes some sense, since Gobert isn’t a great foul shooter, but leave that out for the rest of the series- it’s not worth the risk of losing Adams and getting killed on the glass again. Adams may not be fully healthy, but if he can just give the team what he gave them in game 1, they can win this game. Going against Gobert and trying to protect the rim will always result in some fouls being called- no need to risk the Big Kiwi’s minutes with fouls on plays the are already lost.
2. Stop Blitzing the Pick & Roll
Rudy Gobert might be the Jazz’s best big man, but it was Derrick Favors who killed the Thunder in game 2, putting up 20 points and 16 rebounds. There’s a few reasons to think he won’t have the same massive impact in game 2. Adams playing a full game should help keep Favors off the glass, and 6 of favors points came off 3 pointers, which he shot 2-of-3 on; Favors is far more likely to go 0 for 3 on long bombs than 2 for 3 most night.
However, part of Favors’ success came because of a strategic decision by the Thunder that should be changed for this game. The Thunder frequently blitzed the pick and roll in game 2, having the man guarding the ballhandler and the big man guarding the screener try to trap the Jazz’s ball-handlers. Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell, both good passers, would then simply drop the ball off to the screener, creating a 4-on-3. Favors and Gobert both feasted in this scenario, either finishing themselves or completing nice interior passes to each other when the help came.
There is no reason to do this! Ricky Rubio is not pulling up off the dribble from 3, and even if he gets some space off the screen you’d much prefer him trying to finish a layup in the lane than give up easy dunks to Favors and Gobert. Mitchell is more of a threat to rise up, but he’s still only a so-so deep shooter, and the Thunder looked supremely incapable of defending the 4-on-3. Have the big man drop back defensively and force the Jazz guards to finish in the lane. Bonus: Adams dropping back when he’s guarding the screener leaves him in a better spot to gran those crucial rebounds.
3. Less Mid-Range Jumpers
The Thunder have shot 53 mid-range jump-shots (shots further than 4 feet, but inside the 3 point line) through the first 2 games, per Cleaning the Glass, and hit only 19 of them. In game 1 they went 13 of 30 on the least efficient shot in the sport- not bad! But in game 2 they went a putrid 6 of 23. You don’t need to cut those shots out entirely- if Russ is running the pick and roll and the defense drops back too far playing the shot at the rim, rising up to keep them honest can work. But a ton of Russ’ shot have come via posting Ricky Rubio up, getting somewhere between 8 and 14 feet from the rim, and turning around and firing up a bank shot. Those shots are, charitably, hot garbage. Ditto for Melo’s mid-range shots, which usually follow a triple-threat jab-jab-jab step move that complete exactly zero space. Melo shoots them anyways. These shots are not falling, they are less likely to result in an offensive rebound than a drive to the rim is, and they don’t result in fouls like a drive does. Cut this crap out.
Speaking of Melo: he’s shooting 11 for 31 total in this series. He’s a negative defensively, and has only looked good in this series when given the chance to lead the second unit. I’d like to see Donovan have him run with the second unit again, and then watch how Westbrook and George perform with Grant, Patterson or even Josh Huestis in his place for a few minutes in the second quarter- and if it works, think about going back to that look in the 4th if Melo is continuing to struggle to hit his shot.