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How the Thunder can fix their defense & offense ahead of a pivotal game 3

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There is much that ails OKC. Can they fix things in time?

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s crunch time for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite being the lower seed in this first round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, there was good reason to view the Thunder as the likeliest team to pull a first round upset. They swept the Blazers in the regular season and Portland is without their third best player, center Jusuf Nurkic. And yet, after missing out on a a chance to steal game 1 on the road and then getting trounced in game 2, the Thunder find themselves down 0-2 as they head back to Oklahoma City. The Thunder failed to execute on both ends of the floor for long stretches in game 1 (and STILL had a chance to win at the end), and did not make any notable adjustments in game 2, while the Blazers did. The Thunder need to win both games 3 & 4 to have a realistic chance at taking the series. Here’s the adjustments they can look to make.

Defense

The blueprint for beating Portland has been out since the Pelicans swept them last season — trap on the pick and roll to force the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands (and to a lesser extent CJ McCollum’s, who was magnificent in game 2) , and dare the Trail Blazers other player to beat you.

At first glance, it may look like that’s just what the Thunder are doing- Steven Adams will step up high when the Blazers centers (Enes Kanter and Zach Collins mostly) come to set the screen for Lillard. There are two bodies in front of Lillard now. Mission accomplished!

Except Lillard hasn’t been forced to pick up his dribble, and Westbrook and Adams are not really bothering him. Westbrook is too far behind him because he got caught on the screen set by Enes Kanter, (a common refrain for Westbrook’s pick and roll defense) and then he dove for a high risk steal rather than trying to attach himself to Lillard’s hip. Adams meanwhile is not quite up at Lillard’s level, and is trying to force him towards the sidelines, away from Russ. Lillard obliges, blows by Adams with ludicrous ease, and gets the lay-in.

The idea of the trap is to force the ball out of the best players hands, with the risk being that you give up a 4-on-3 if the ballhandler gets a clean pass off to his roll man. The Thunder however are not really trapping. Adams will come to the level of the screen, but he isn’t really trying to get Lillard to pick up his dribble, he’s just trying to stall Lillard until Westbrook can recover to him, and then Adams will rush back to his man. The Thunder’s approach results in the the worst of both worlds; the ball is in Lillard’s hands with his dibble live and the 4-on-3 is open if Lillard wants it. It’s too easy now.

The Thunder should commit to having Adams and Lillard’s mark execute a full trap. If Russell Westbrook isn’t able to fight over those screens, the Thunder should try putting Paul George on Lillard. There are plenty of other places to put Westbrook; Mo Harkless spends lots of his time chilling in the corner, and isn’t an especially great threat with the ball. When both team start getting into their bench, the Thunder should be happy to guard Evan Turner with Westbrook (or Dennis Schroder). Turner is no threat to shoot threes, so the Thunder’s guards don’t need to worry about chasing him over screens. Turner does have a height advantage over both, and the Blazers have let Turner aggressively post Schroder a few times. No problem. The Thunder’s two point guards are stout enough post defenders to prevent Turner from getting free looks, and any possessions the Blazers go away from their primary pick and roll attack to let Turner post up is a win for OKC.

George is much better at fighting over screens than Westbrook (or Terrance Ferguson, who has mostly escaped notice but is having a bad defensive series), and has a ton of length on Lillard. If George is able to get over the top of screens and work with Adams (or Nerlens Noel or Jerami Grant), Lillard will quickly run out of places to go, and he will be forced to either try to beat two guys by himself, or try to throw a pass over or around two guys that are at least half a foot taller than him, and have monster wingspans.

The Thunder have been able to get some steals by successfully trapping Lillard (notice how Nerlens Noel lunges at Lillard and Ferguson stays attached to his hip- Dame has nowhere to go but into Enes Kanter, which leads to the turnover. Lillard is also being overly risky here because the quarter is about to end).

The Thunder have gotten good results when Lillard is forced to get rid of the ball under pressure:

Even when a clean pass gets off, the Blazers are prone to mistakes when someone other than Lillard or McCollum is forced to make a play in space:

The trap will of course not work every time. Lillard has become a master at countering the trap by attacking early to split the oncoming double:

And if the trap does work, the Blazers have other ways of getting points, from their motion-based sets to simply letting Lillard and McCollum isolate. Trapping alone will not win the Thunder this series. But it will force the Blazers to get outside of their comfort zone, and slow down an offense that utterly embarrassed OKC’s defense in game two of this series.

Offense

As embarrassing as the Thunder’s defense was in the 2nd half of game two, it’s their offense that sunk them in both games. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder’s offensive rating was below 100 in both of their first two games (this is a fancy way of saying the Thunder averaged less than 100 points per 100 possessions. For context, the New York Knicks had the worst offensive rating in the NBA this season and still checked in at 104.2)

The Thunder have been masterful this season at turning defense into offense, but have failed to do so thus far in the series. They were among the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers in the regular season, and are again in the playoffs, per NBA.com- 16% of their opponents possessions ended in a turnover in the regular season (2nd best in the league), while through two games 15.3% of Portland’s possessions have ended in turnovers. The Thunder’s edge in turnovers and offensive rebounds were part of how they managed to stick around for all of game 1, despite shooting terribly.

The problem — those turnovers have not resulted in a lot of points. The Thunder averaged 24.4 points per game from transition plays in the regular season. While they scored only 1.05 points per possession on such opportunities (the third worst mark in the league), they made up for the low quality with a high quantity; nearly 20% of the Thunder’s possessions came in transition, per NBA.com. In the playoffs, despite averaging nearly the same volume of transition attempts through the first 2 games of the playoffs, the Thunder’s efficiency has cratered down to just 0.83 points per possession, which would have been worst in the league for the regular season by a mile. The Thunder are averaging just 19.5 points in transition in the playoffs compared to 24.4 in the regular season. Those 5 extra points could have swung Game 1.

I don’t think the answer is to slow down. The Thunder’s half-court offense has also been terrible. Getting down the court early before Portland can get set is still going to result in better looks. But the Thunder need to actually convert those looks.

The Thunder need to convert more looks in the half court set as well. Just as on the defensive end, the Thunder’s success on this end of the floor hinges on the pick and roll. Enes Kanter is a defensive liability, as the Thunder themselves know better than anyone. Yet OKC has not exploited him as much as they should. Early in game 2, the Thunder found success posting Steven Adams against Kanter. Adams has posted up 9 times in this series, per NBA.com, and has scored 10 points on just 6 field goals on those possessions. Excellent stuff. The Thunder can find success here. But as they have all season, the Thunder forgot Adams existed as an offensive option after the first few minutes of the first quarter. OKC treats those early possessions for Adams almost as an early game ritual, a sacrifice to the basketball gods to ensure a bountiful harvest of screens and boxouts later on, not a legitimate strategy to rely on. In this matchup especially, they should look for it more.

Still, Kanter is not a complete sieve as a post defender- he’s big and strong on the low block. Where he has been targeted and embarrassed in the past is as a pick and roll defender, and here the Thunder can really make hay. The Thunder should especially look to use Paul George as the ball handler in these screens. George is a dangerous off the ball shooter, which forces Kanter to step up high on the pick and roll and defend George in space. That’s money for the Thunder.

OKC should also consider having Russell Westbrook and Terrance Ferguson (or Dennis Schroder, or even Ray Felton) set screens for George as a way of forcing McCollum and Lillard to defend George. The Rockets and LeBron-era Cavaliers frequently tried to attack Stephen Curry in this manner- turn your opponent’s best offensive player into a liability on the other end, and tire him out doing it while you’re at it. When Lillard has wound up guarding George because the matchups got crossed in transition, it’s been curtains for Portland.

(this was ruled a goaltend. 2 points for OKC)

Of course, Russell Westbrook almost never sets on balls screens, and Billy Donovan has never really engaged in this type of matchup hunting. It is not really in OKC’s DNA to do this. But the Thunder are down 2-0, and their offense has been a trainwreck in both games so far. This simple adjustment could go a long way.

If The Thunder don’t want to use Russ as a screener, they can also organically create possessions where Lillard guards George by having George guard Lillard, as discussed above. Having George guard Lillard will force Lillard to pick up George on the other end when the Thunder push in transition, or force Portland to scramble to match-up while also hustling back when the Thunder push, which can lead to mistakes.

Either way, OKC’s anemic transition offense should benefit. When George finds a little guard like McCollum or Lillard on him, he can bully them, back them down, take them off the dribble, or even shoot over them, and they pretty much have to hope he misses.

Even without any big adjustments, the Thunder’s offense should get better in game 3 for one simple reason: shooting. At some point, the Thunder have to shoot better from 3, almost by default. Yes, the Thunder are a bad three point shooting team. They still shot 34.8% in the regular season from deep. They are shooting 16.4% from deep in the playoffs. You might think the Blazers have forced the right players to take 3’s, or contested them well, but it hasn’t really been that. Paul George is shooting 6-22 on the series so far, and Jerami Grant is 0-8. That is despite the fact that George has taken a league leading thirteen 3’s that the NBA classifies as wide-open (no defender within 6 feet). He’s shooting just 4-13 on those attempts. That’s not good defense by the Blazers, it’s just plain luck. The Thunder as a team are 6-32 (19%) on wide open 3’s for the series so far. They should shoot better in games 3 and 4, if only because it would be nearly impossible to shoot worse. This is a huge series for Grant, who’s fresh off a breakout season but has been very quiet through the first two games.

Even hitting their average number of 3’s wouldn’t have saved the Thunder in game 2 (although it would have won them game 1, and if OKC loses this series, that’s the one they’ll regret most). The Thunder will need to make some major offensive adjustments and come up with a true plan on defense if they want to win not just game 3 but have a legitimate chance this series.

The pressure is high — Billy Donovan hasn’t won a playoff series since 2016 and Russell Westbrook and Paul George have both received a ton of criticism for their playoff performances over the last couple seasons. Winning this series would go a long way towards dispelling those doubts, but to start, the Thunder need to win this game.