The Thunder passed the ball a lot but...
Their passing didn’t result in a lot of advantageous looks. The goal of a ball movement heavy offense is to create seams in the defense so that you already have an edge when you start driving rather than having to create one-on-one. But OKC’s ball movement, while nice to see, didn’t create any edges, and left the team pressing up against the shot clock often, including a shot clock violation on their third play of the game.
OKC fared much better when they ran simple pick and roll actions with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In the first quarter, when the Thunder did not get a single point in transition, 10 of their 12 points came from pick and roll attacks by the two starting guards (the other 2 came from a post-up by Danilo Gallinari). The Thunder moved away from the more elaborate set pieces as time wore on. Where their passing worked better was in more improvised situations where guys made unscripted cuts after the defense had been compromised by CP3 or Dennis Schroder’s drives.
Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley both got legitimate rotation minutes as the second unit wings. The team had a clear role in mind for Diallo- throw him the ball in transition situations and let him attack. Diallo flashed some good decision making in this role as he gave the ball back up when it wasn’t there but also had a couple nice finishes. He also got an and-one off an offensive rebound and hit a bank shot buzzer beater after Schroder bent the defense at the end of Q3. Diallo looked altogether more polished than last year, and this was probably the best overall game of his career. Billy Donovan even subbed him in for Gallinari as a defensive stopper in the game’s final minute - alas, he absolutely died on a Rudy Gobert screen on Donovan Mitchell’s dagger to extend the lead to 5.
As for Darius Bazley, the only word to describe him tonight was wild. You have to respect the young man’s confidence, and that confidence means he will have some much better nights as the year goes on as long as the confidence never wavers. Tonight though it meant some wild plays — a couple attempted layups that were pretty far off and a pass to Diallo in transition that was the right play but had way too much mustard on it and was fumbled out of bounds. Still, he was looking to do the right things.
Shai! Shai! Shai!
Let’s start with the bad of SGA’s night -- he finished with only 1 assist, partly because Billy Donovan did not play him for a second without Chris Paul or Dennis Schroder also on the court and primarily had those two initiate the offense, deploying Alexander mainly as a scoring guard. The good news; SGA was damn good as a scoring guard, leading the Thunder with 26 points (a career high) on 10-23 shooting (his efficiency was lower than it should have been as he was an uncharacteristic 3-6 from the foul line). Going up against the league’s premier rim protector in Rudy Gobert, SGA got crafty with his finishes, and with each make he seemed determined to take an even more ludicrous angle on the next attempt. He was also 3-7 from 3 point land and had no hesitation firing when defenders sagged off him. His feel for the game was on display navigating the pick and roll, as he was extremely patient getting to his spots and manipulating the Jazz defenders. It was a major disappointment that the Thunder mainly had him stand in the corner during crunch time as Paul ran the show. As good as Paul is (and he was excellent tonight), SGA earned the right to take on a big role in high leverage moments as well.
I’m of the opinion that Shai is a point guard or at least a combo guard, and he should get more than 1 assist per game. But he certainly showed he can thrive in a score first role too.
Other quick observations:
- OKC closed with all 3 point guards sharing the floor. It didn’t really work -- Shai was relegated to the corner, and Dennis Schroder wound up defending Donovan Mitchell, which was far from ideal. I would rather have Ferguson or even Diallo out there.
- Mike Muscala played 16 minutes, mostly as a backup center, leaving only 5 minutes for Nerlens Noel
- The Jazz absolutely brutalized the Thunder in the pick and roll, with Donovan Mitchell and Bogdan Bogdanovic both torching OKC. They were clearly targeting Muscala with these actions when he was on the floor, but they found success in the two man game when Adams was on the floor as well, as he dropped very low and the Jazz ball handlers were able to get easy floaters and short jump shots. Mitchell had some stunning finishes at the rim as well.
- The game may not have been as close if Mike Conley hadn’t been so dreadful. He was 1-16 in his Jazz debut and 0-6 from 3, several of which were wide open. The Jazz will be a scary team when Conley and Mitchell are both firing on all cylinders
- Rudy Gobert looks ready for another run at defensive Player of the Year. The Thunder had just 34 points in the paint tonight and Chris Paul didn’t even bother to try to attack Gobert on the inside for the most part, opting to dribble back out and look elsewhere.
- Chris Paul baited Mike Conley into multiple dumb fouls on his trademark “ swing your arm up as if shooting when the opponent’s hand is in the cookie jar” move. I must say this move is far less aggravating when it’s your own point guard doing it
- Terrence Ferguson was more active moving around with out the ball than last year, and for his trouble he wound up with exactly zero field goal attempts. Run a play for him every once in a while Billy!
- Steven Adams had 3 points. He was in foul trouble early and Gobert is a tough matchup but still- 3 points. OKC needs to find more ways to get him involved, and I don’t mean giving him 1 token post-up.
- Emmanuel Mudiay, who you forgot played for the Jazz, was pretty effective off the bench