With the playoffs starting, Billy Donovan will shorten his rotation. Looking back at Donovan’s tenure with the team, he has had around nine guys play at least 10 minutes a game in every playoff game that the Thunder had. So Donovan’s magic number when it comes to playing guys he trusts in a playoff atmosphere is around nine.
Who will those nine guys be on this team?
Well it’s safe to say that six of the nine spots are secured with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder. But what about the other three spots? Who will replace Dort in the starting lineup if he has to miss games?
J.D. and Clemente will discuss these talking points in this piece and try to give an educated guess on who Billy will trust among his bench guys against the small ball Rockets.
Who do you give your last three rotation spots to?
Clemente: Well for me the three are Darius Bazley, Andre Roberson and Hamidou Diallo. I am not sure how playable Nerlens Noel is in this series; on paper it is a bad matchup. Noel would get in foul trouble quickly and will be baited into roaming the perimeter, not in the paint where his defense excels.
I just do not see how the Thunder can play both Adams and Noel in this series and succeed, even with the rebounding edge they would provide. Mike Muscala really interests me as he has played well in the Bubble, shooting 47.8% from three on 3.8 attempts a game. His spacing could provide more value to this series than Noel’s rim running and shot blocking would.
If Oklahoma City had to play a traditional backup big, I would go Mike over Nerlens against Houston. But, I could definitely see a scenario where the Thunder play Noel early on in the series just to test the waters.
Before the season restarted, I would not have trusted Bazley to play meaningful playoff minutes. However, he has really been impressive in the Bubble and has arguably been OKC’s best young bubble player. Bazley has scored over 20 points in three of his eight games.
Darius has been near automatic from three, going 20-41 (48.7%). Bazley’s on court demeanor has been one of a super confident player who knows what he is doing when he gets the ball.
Darius’ step-back three has blossomed into a good shot in Orlando and his athleticism is a real asset to his driving game. His defense has been respectable and I feel like the Thunder could get away with playing Bazley at the five against the Pocket Rockets for a limited amount of minutes.
Roberson is known as the “Harden Stopper” and this is one of those playoff matchups where he can provide value. Roberson will especially important if Dort has to miss games. My only concern with Andre would be how he would handle the intensity of a playoff game. We do not know how long he can actually physically go before running out of stamina.
The Thunder have slowly been bringing Andre back to full fitness in the Bubble after missing two and a half years. It does not seem logical for the Thunder to just flip the switch and rely heavily on him to play real minutes in the playoffs. It sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Andre has already missed a game due to foot soreness. The shock his body would experience by suddenly playing heavy minutes could result in other injuries.
Diallo has been a favorite of Billy’s off the bench. He has averaged over 20 minutes a game in the Bubble. Hamidou’s best game in the Bubble was his most recent one where he scored a career high 27 points and grabbed a career high 11 boards against the Clippers.
Hami has shot the ball surprisingly well from three in the Bubble, going 9-22 (40.9%). Diallo seems to really favor corner threes when it comes to shooting from the outside. But I am not sure just how much I trust Diallo in a playoff scenario. It seems like whenever he touches the ball, crazy things tend to happen that either go really well for the Thunder or really bad.
Diallo can be a great weapon to use against the fast paced Rockets as he is a scoring threat in transition. Hami’s putback game is excellent thanks to his elite vertical. But in half court sets, Diallo can be a liability off the ball. The Rockets will dare him to shoot from three. But like I said, the coaching staff seems to really like Diallo and what he brings to the table with his limitless supply of energy, hustle and confidence.
J.D.: I have to take Roberson. Bazley and Nader in this series. I think that the Thunder will struggle to play big against Houston. The Rockets’ commitment to small ball for all 48 minutes presents a lot of match-up issues for the Thunder.
I really do not like the idea of Nerlens Noel or Steven Adams having to guard a perimeter-based player for the whole game. I can trust them for a stretch of possessions but I think they will struggle to make rotations to the perimeter throughout the game. Bazley seems like a better option in this instance.
Darius has great quickness and a great motor. Bazley is very good at covering ground and making life difficult for shooters without fouling. This is something that the Thunder have to excel at it in order to suffocate the Rockets’ offense.
I would also say that Bazley brings a lot on offense. His ability as a floor spacer gives the Thunder coaching staff more options on offense. Bazley can be used as a pick and pop threat with good effectiveness. Darius is also a solid roll man due to his finishing around the rim; Bazley has looked comfortable with both hands at the bucket.
Andre Roberson cracks my rotation as Oklahoma City need someone who can make life hell for Harden. Roberson’s length smothers Harden and it will be difficult for the Rockets’ guard to move on offense. Roberson plays a relentless, grinding style of defense which will pull Harden into inefficient nights from the floor.
I do worry about Roberson’s lateral quickness in a match-up against Harden. James Harden is surprisingly quick for a stocky guard and his first step allows him to glide past defensive coverages. Roberson has struggled to contain smaller, faster guards in the Bubble so far.
However, I feel confident in Andre’s mind being able to make up the athletic differences. Roberson’s understanding of spatial awareness and his reading of the game forms a potent combination. Andre always seems to know how to position himself in places so that the offense does not get a good look.
The last spot in the rotation is a difficult choice for me. There are a few bench players who have a valid case for being the last man in the rotation. Hamidou Diallo brings energy and athleticism on the court. However, I feel like I have to take Abdel Nader as my ninth man.
Nader is one of the few good shooters for the Thunder. Nader knocks down 3-point shots at 37.5%; he is a serviceable and reliable threat from the outside. Oklahoma City will need that shooting against a team like Houston if the Rockets start to cook on offense.
Houston have demonstrated an ability over the last few years to go on scoring binges from deep where the game becomes out of sight for the other team. The Thunder need to have a reliable option from outside who can go some way to cutting the deficit and keeping the Thunder in the game.
I also prefer Nader’s ball-handling to Diallo’s. Hamidou pulls off exceptional moments during the game but he also has huge errors which really hurt the Thunder. Nader is a steadier hand at the wing.
Abdel rarely makes a highlight play but he plays in control with the ball. There is very little wildness to his game which is one of the reasons why Nader is shooting 71.6% inside 3ft. Abdel is calm with the ball and knows what to do when he gets into good positions.
If Dort misses time, who starts in his place?
Clemente: Dort missing games would be a huge blow as the wing depth behind him is not very good. Terrance Ferguson started in Lu’s place against in the second half against the Heat and got the starting nod in the Clippers’ game.
But before that, Terrance was buried deep on the bench and I do not think the team will suddenly trust Ferguson to start playoff games. Dort’s starting spot is a really interesting one for the Thunder as his spot would be primarily matched up against James Harden to start the game.
Oklahoma City will most likely throw multiple defenders against Harden throughout the series and one of those defenders will be whoever starts for Dort. With that in mind, I think the best route the team should take is starting Schroder.
Dennis has been great this season and has shown capabilities of being an aggressive perimeter defender. The Thunder will be fine with Dennis guarding Harden on a limited number of possessions if it comes to that.
Schroder starting will also increase the use of the Three Guard lineup; this lineup has the best Net Rating among three man lineups at +28.6 in over 400 minutes. Dennis will raise the offensive ceiling as he is another ball handler who can create his own offense and set others up with decent looks.
The Thunder would start halves off with four of the five guys on the floor being outside shooters that Houston must respect. When it comes to the bench units, Donovan should stagger the minutes of his three guards to always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. The team will have the talent to dominate the non-Harden minutes.
J.D.: This might seem like a controversial pick but I think I have to take Andre Roberson as my starter if Dort misses the first few games of the series. It is difficult decision to make as there are three directions that the Thunder can go at the Small Forward spot.
Oklahoma City could choose to deploy Terrance Ferguson as a starter. Ferguson has experience as a starter and is an able lockdown defender. Terrance is very good at playing defense and I have always thought that Ferguson has played Harden well in the past.
Ferguson’s reactive style of defense works nicely against Harden. James is not able to beat his man easily and get into the lane for an easy look at the rim. Harden has to settle for his step-back jumper and try to the beat the defense with this tool. In any case, the step-back is a low efficiency shot compared to looks in close.
However, Ferguson’s offense is non-existent. Ferguson will go sit in the corner and defenses do not respect his shot as Ferguson seems to be reticent to shoot these looks. I appreciate that Terrance is taking more threes but it is a small sample to build a worthwhile conclusion about his offense. I need to see more before I can trust Ferguson as a starter in the playoffs.
Schroder could work as a starter. Dennis has been one of the best defensive players at the point guard position this year. I do not worry about his defense or offense in the game; Schroder has shown plenty of talent during the course of the season.
My issue with starting Schroder is that fatigue could be real issue towards the end of games. Harden plays a physical brand of basketball and his style can be taxing on the person who is assigned to him. Schroder guarding Harden for the whole game could lead to Dennis being less effective on offense.
This leaves one option left and that option is Andre Roberson. Roberson is an excellent perimeter defender who has given Harden fits previously. Andre is experienced and is not prone to foul his assignment unnecessarily. The key differentiator between Roberson and Ferguson is their offensive impact.
Roberson brings slightly more on offense. Andre will cut to the rim for easy looks while also taking shots from deep. Roberson’s movement gives the defense another thing to think about when the Rockets face the Thunder.
To recap, here is what Clemente and J.D. each think what the Thunder’s rotation would be with and without Dort
Clemente: Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Gallinari, Adams, Schroder, Bazley, Roberson, Diallo
J.D.: Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Gallinari, Adams, Schroder, Bazley, Roberson, Nader
Clemente: Paul, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, Adams, Bazley, Roberson, Diallo, Muscala
J.D.: Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Roberson, Gallinari, Adams, Bazley, Schroder, Nader, Diallo