Oklahoma City playing against the Warriors was one of the premier fixtures in the NBA a few years ago. The games used to be high-intensity tilts between two of the leading Western Conference powers. Steve Kerr described those games between Russ-KD and the Splash Bros as “incredible meetings”, the game last night was more low-key. The energy from the crowd felt low and the game lacked intensity. It did feel like a pre-season game at times with the sloppiness on offence for the Thunder and the lack of focus on defence. The simple reality is the tie was played by two probable lottery teams and the Thunder won out in the end because they had slightly better talent.
The Thunder came out of the gate brightly and moved the ball crisply. The ball rarely stopped and the Thunder consistently made the extra pass which ran the Warriors ragged. The speed of movement meant that the Thunder were exceptional from outside in the first quarter which helped build a hefty lead. The Thunder also made a point to take advantage of the Warriors’ thin big man rotation. OKC ran actions with Gallinari and Adams operating in the two-man game. In first example, Gallinari flashed a pass to Adams which led to an easy dunk. The second action ran was even better as Adams dropped a sweet-looking bounce pass into Gallinari who finished at the rim comfortably. The Thunder were also aggressive on the defensive end as they forced the Warriors into turnovers and created easy scores out of these opportunities. Hamidou Diallo was a key component of the strong performance in the first quarter. His energy and willingness to fight through screens meant he got a steal which then led to a simple dunk.
The second quarter largely carried on the same way as the first quarter. The Thunder continued to lead the Warriors and did not look threatened but the offensive sloppiness began to rear its head. The offence bogged down towards the end of the second quarter and the beautiful passing quickly disappeared. The incisive passes inside dried up and the Thunder seemed content to pass the ball around on the perimeter instead of penetrating the defence. The issue with the aimless passing was that it ran down the shot clock unnecessarily and led to the Thunder jacking up contested jumpers on multiple possessions. The Thunder settled for perimeter looks instead of trying to get good shots inside despite the fact the Thunder had much success inside early on in the game. Despite the offence stagnating at the end of the quarter, the Thunder went into the break with a lead of seventeen points and the game seemed in hand. The Thunder did not have to do anything exceptional in the second half. All they had to do was continue playing stout defence and maintain the lead built up in the first half.
The complacency displayed by the Thunder before the half carried over into the second half and caused unnecessary problems for Oklahoma City. The team continued to run through isolation basketball and the whole team went cold from the field. The Warriors’ defence was not being challenged by movement so it became easy for them to guard the Thunder players. They did not have to worry about off-ball cuts or quick dives to the rim as the Thunder were not doing anything off the ball. It allowed the Warriors to focus on guarding their man which they did pretty well. The Thunder were held to just twenty four points in the third quarter while the Warriors fought their way back into the tie. Steve Kerr made a tweak on offence which involved getting D’Angelo in ball screen sets and letting him work from the top of the key. Russell roasted the Thunder from downtown and mid-range while also using Willie Cauley Stein as a lob target.
The Thunder’s defence in the third quarter was a huge reason why the Warriors scored forty one in the third period. The defensive rotations out to shooters were looser which gave players like Glenn Robinson III and Damion Lee plenty of time to line up shots. The Thunder did not pressure these players into making difficult contested looks. The defensive game-plan did not make the Thunder’s life any easier as the team repeatedly gave up mid-range looks that Russell feasts on. The gameplay introduced by Billy Donovan is completely different to last year. In previous years, the big man would come up and pressure the ball-handler, the Thunder now run a lot of drop coverages so that players are funnelled into the mid-range area. This strategy makes sense for a lot of NBA players who are not proficient from this range but it does not work for a three-level scorer like Russell who is competent from mid-range. D’Angelo Russell shot 43.4% from mid-range last season per NBAStats which is the same percentage that Stephen Curry shot from the same location. The coverages will need to be re-worked so that good mid-range shooters cannot become comfortable in these spots. That is now two games in a row where the opposing team has erupted from mid-range.
The Thunder entered the fourth quarter with the game in the balance and it required Chris Paul to secure the game. Paul entered the game and was an instant stabilising influence as he got the ball moving again. The Thunder began to find their offensive rhythm again before eventually seeing out the game. Although the Thunder won the game, there are serious concerns for Billy Donovan. The lapse in concentration and intensity almost threw away a game which the Thunder had won by the half. Gallinari acknowledged that the Thunder’s focus has to be “about the intensity of the game”. This will be key against Milwaukee where breakdowns on offence will be ruthlessly exploited by the Bucks.
Quick Game Notes:
- Mike Muscala and Dennis Schroder’s two-man game is pretty ineffectual. Schroder chose to run this action a few times during the second quarter and it achieved nothing positive. The pass to Muscala would be instantly returned to sender before Dennis could even move off-ball. It could be a good idea for Muscala to delay the return pass and wait for Schroder to get into a good offensive position. The current action does not penetrate the defence and just wastes valuable seconds off the shot clock.
- Hamidou Diallo’s energy was really valuable in terms of energising the Thunder’s play on both ends of the floor. Diallo came in for Terrance Ferguson and made an instant impact as he tracked all over the floor chasing D’Angelo Russell. He hounded D’Loading and his improved defensive awareness meant that he was rarely fooled by Russell’s fakes. Energy rarely translates into box scores but Diallo had the best plus-minus score on the team. His plus-minus was +25 which reflected his efficient, well-rounded game.
- During the game, the Thunder used a decent number of pick and roll sets using Mike Muscala as the roll-man and it revealed that Muscala is a pretty poor screener. There was multiple times where Muscala was brought into the possession as a screener. However, he rarely got his body into the Warriors and ducked the screen on a few occasions. He did not set himself to screen the defender and create separation for the ball-handler. Instead, Muscala would cut to the arc or the lane when he was supposed to provide a screen. He needs to take some lessons from Steven Adams when it comes to screening.