It’s now or never for the Oklahoma City Thunder. After somehow managing to pull out the 4 seed in the West and secure home court for the first round of the playoffs, they’ve thrown that advantage away and gone down 3 games to 1 against the Utah Jazz. Every bad habit of the regular season — reliance on mid-range shots and isolation possessions, falling asleep on defense, etc. — has come back with a vengeance. Their great regular season strengths, offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers, have both failed them — the Jazz have out-rebounded them and the teams are nearly tied in turnovers (61 and 62 for the series). Their stars have not shown up offensively, apart from a magnificent game 1 from Paul George (their only win).
I said after the Thunder dropped game 2 that it wasn’t yet time to panic. It is now time to panic. The Thunder are one loss way from a first round exit, a disastrous culmination of a frustrating and disappointing season, and also the same result they suffered last year. Such an outcome would almost certainly lead to Paul George walking away in free agency, likely trapping the team in a purgatory of 45ish win seasons and first round exits until Russell Westbrook ages out of his prime.
These are desperate times. So here’s a desperate measure: the Thunder should start Jerami Grant tonight.
Grant is the only member of the the team who’s emphatically playing better in the playoffs than the regular season (maybe we should call him playoff J). He and Alex Abrines are the only players on the team with a positive net rating for this series (Abrines has a net rating of +4.5, Grant +3.0). OKC’s defensive rating when he’s on the court is a tight 101.1 (101 points allowed per 100 possessions) compared to a ghastly 108.7 for the team as a whole. He’s second on the team in attempts in the 4th quarter behind only Paul George, and is shooting better in the 4th quarter than any of the big 3 (and better overall than the big 3 for that matter, though on a much lower volume of attempts).
Here what it comes down to: Grant has brought it when it matters, he runs the floor in transition, he’s a good defender, he finishes well at the rim, and he keeps the ball moving if he doesn’t have a good look. None of those things are true of Carmelo Anthony. I know how good Melo used to be. I know the legends of Olympic Melo and Hoodie Melo. That is not the player OKC is getting in 2018. The Melo the Thunder have available has shot 37.3% from the field in these playoffs, including a putrid 23% from deep. And if he’s not hitting his shot, Melo gives you nothing else — he’s a liability on the defense who the Jazz have targeted repeatedly, and stops the ball on offense even if he’s not shooting well.
If the Thunder want another floor spacer out there with Russ and PG, they should turn to Alex Abrines, who has defensive woes of his own, but is actually hitting his 3’s this series — you know, the thing the floor spacers are out there to do. In limited minutes in the regular season the 5 man lineup of Russ-Abrines-PG-Grant-Adams absolutely destroyed opponents, to the tune of a +31.9 net rating, per Cleaning The Glass. If two changes to the starting lineup is too much for Billy Donovan, he can keep Corey Brewer out there and just bank on the improvements in defense and athleticism that inserting Grant will bring.
Starting Grant isn’t a panacea. The Thunder need to do a lot of things better in game 5 to extend this series. They need to dominate the glass the way they did in the regular season. They need to defend the Jazz better (Another piece of advice for Billy Donovan- holy hell, please stop blitzing the pick and roll. How many dunks and wide-open corner 3’s need to be given up before it becomes clear that this scheme isn’t working?). And Russ and PG need to hit more of those shots. Grant won’t cure those things by himself, but he helps with all of them. He’ll do a better job than Melo keeping Derrick Favors from the glass, leaving Adams to go mano-y-mano with Rudy Gobert. If the Thunder continue to go with their aggressive pick and roll coverage (but for the love of God, don’t) he is better at tagging the roller and then recovering to his man than Melo is. He gives Russ another partner to run the pick and roll with, and if he doesn’t have a good look he’ll give the ball back, giving PG and Westbrook more chances to get going. With how ineffective Melo has been on his post-ups and his 3’s, this move should be addition by subtraction even if Grant adds little on offense. Whatever else, he isn’t going to take 15 shots per game the way Melo is.
Inserting Grant into the starting lineup won’t guarantee a victory in game 5, much less a series victory. But it would be a jolt of energy and a different look to throw at the Jazz- two things the Thunder need after 3 games where they have looked listless and the Jazz defense has looked dominant. The playoffs are all about adjustments. Minor adjustments between games 2 and 3 and games 3 and 4 have failed to save the Thunder, and now it’s time for a last ditch effort. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t — but at this point, OKC doesn’t have much left to lose.
And one final time: in the name of all that’s holy, please stop blitzing the pick and roll.
Should Donovan start Grant tonight?
This poll is closed
Yes! Melo needs to sit.
No! But Melo still needs to sit.
No! Melo has one special moment left in him this post-season.