Oklahoma City have already played fifty five games and across that span, the team has gone 33-22. It is an impressive mark and the Thunder will make the play-offs providing that the team continues their strong play and deals with the challenges presented to them. The schedule becomes a lot tougher now that the Thunder have played through their soft stretch, this will be the portion of the season where we learn if the Thunder are for real.
Oklahoma City have struggled to get over the line against top teams, the teams who can be considered for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Thunder have played to their usual standard in these games but the talent disparity becomes evident during the late-game situations. A team like the Lakers or Raptors can afford to sit off players like Terrance Ferguson and focus their defensive efforts on more productive members of the team. The three guard lineup has been an equaliser for the Thunder in terms of providing an offensive tool which can stretch defences and create easy looks. While this line-up has been brilliant, it does have a few faults that will be exploited by good teams in the play-offs. A team like the Clippers, a possible first-round match-up have the length and skill to make players like Dennis Schroder inefficient. This is an interesting issue for Coach Donovan to deal with it as common logic would suggest that the best way to overcome any potential defensive issues would be plenty of minutes for the line-up so that players can learn to work as one rather than five.
The only issue with choosing to work on getting this lineup perfectly situated during the final days of the regular season is that it will show the Thunder’s hand early and provide plenty of film for opposing teams to pick apart. There is a difference between a lineup playing around eight minutes a night and a lineup playing more than twenty minutes a night where all of the key players are tired. It is a lot easier to run offence and make good decisions when players are rested, it is significantly more difficult with fatigued players. Good teams will find flaws in the lineup and exploit this issue extensively so it could make sense for Donovan to save this card trick for the play-offs, this wrinkle could get a win for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City have other faults that the coaching staff needs to think about, one of the most pressing issues that needs to be resolved is Danilo Gallinari’s ability to stay on the floor in crunch time. Gallinari is a superb offensive player in terms of his efficiency and versatility, it is very rare that a guy can score from all three levels while being a solid play-maker. However, Gallinari is slow-footed which will mean that he will be roasted by quicker guards in a play-off situation. Boston did a similar sort of thing against the Thunder recently, Brad Stevens was deliberate in getting Kemba Walker onto Gallinari as a mismatch and let him work. It worked well for Boston as Walker knocked down two crucial threes which secured the victory for the Celtics. Other teams will notice this, any little chink in the armour will be exploited. It is entirely realistic to see a team like Utah with Donovan Mitchell constantly forcing the switch and killing Gallinari with his pace. Gallinari’s scoring would have to be exceptional if he is a sieve on defence in a play-off series.
The Thunder need to take these final twenty seven games and use this time as a testing period where they can refine the defensive system and mask weaknesses. Billy Donovan has ran a coverage where the perimeter players switch assignments during picks and screens. This has generally worked for the Thunder in terms of constantly pressuring the ball-handler and forcing mistakes. This will not work against teams with strong guard play as they do not feel pressured and continue to run their offence. One of the few ways for the Thunder to prevent these mismatches from occurring will be to run an old-school scheme, a simple man scheme where Gallinari stays with his match-up no matter the situation. This coverage will prevent the mismatches from occurring but it places a lot of pressure on the guard in the coverage, they have to get through the screen quickly and beat the offensive player to their spot. I am confident in Chris Paul being able to do this but I have doubts about SGA and Dennis being able to work effectively within a more complex defensive scheme, The only way for Billy Donovan to understand whether any adjustments will work is to trial the ideas out in game situations.
Oklahoma City also need to work on building new offensive wrinkles that can get buckets against quality defence. A play-off series becomes a chess match between coaches, a great strategist can overcome a talent disadvantage by exploiting an edge. Small offensive variations will go some way to addressing the talent differential, the opposing team will likely not have game-planned for the variation and therefore the Thunder can use that confusion to their advantage. Billy ran a play earlier in the season which OKC has not really gone back to except for the fact that this particular action generated a quality look. It was a simple play, it involved Paul setting a screen to free Gallinari from his defender in the corner. Gallinari curled out to the break to receive a pass from Adams where he would have an open shot.
For the first time in a long time, the Thunder have multiple play-makers and shooters who can knock down looks from deep effectively. This roster strength allows the Thunder to crib from the playbook of teams like the Warriors or Clippers who have ran motion offence for years. The Warriors used to run an action in the pre-Durant days which could be really effective for the Thunder. The ‘Split Action’ was a favourite of Steve Kerr’s and has a lot of synergy with the current Thunder’s style. The action involves the big man receiving the ball in the post and facilitating the play. A guard will then receive a flare screen from a forward, freeing them to move off the ball into a catch and shoot jumper. It is a simple action and the Warriors usually used Iggy, Klay and Bogut to run the play. The necessary requirements for this action is shooting, play-making and a good screener. Oklahoma City could use SGA as the catch and shoot option, Gallinari as the screener and Adams as the facilitator.
This particular play and its variations fit nicely into a Thunder offence which has made hand-offs from Steven Adams a key part of the offence. This action can be further adapted if Donovan wants to get funky with the play, it is feasible to run the play with Gallinari as the facilitator with Paul as the screener. That little variation would provide the option of another mobile play-maker who can fill it up from deep.
Oklahoma City will need to drill these action if Donovan chooses to re-work and adapt the offence, it requires a lot of team co-ordination so that the ball ends up in the right spot every single time. OKC still have a few easy teams left on the schedule where experimentation will be possible, I expect Billy to use this time to play with the offensive scheming of the team.
The post-season awaits for the Thunder but that does not mean the final days of the regular season should be ignored. This is the best time for a team to build good habits and gradually lock into the next level of intensity. Oklahoma City will need to play well in order to get to the fifty win mark, the Thunder need to go 17-10 over the remaining games. This is an achievable target that Donovan should emphasise, a 50-win season will improve the morale around the team for both the players and the staff. Whatever happens, Oklahoma City are in a good position and just need to keep doing the little things well.