Oklahoma City choked away a winnable game against the Houston Rockets last night. The Rockets went on a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter that put the game away for Houston. The Rockets’ run coincided with the Thunder’s offense stagnating and breaking down.
Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul were hesitant on offense and settled for isolation plays. Isolation basketball is not the way to beat the Houston defense. The only way to beat the Rockets’ defensive coverage is to move the ball and create gaps that the offense can exploit.
The simple fact of Game 2 is that the Rockets executed better than the Thunder on the little details. The Thunder did not take care of the ball and struggled to produce good looks on offense.
It is a disappointing loss and the Thunder are now in an unenviable position. The Thunder are facing a 2-0 deficit against a highly motivated Houston Rockets team. It is not a normal season by any means; Oklahoma City will not be able to rely on the power of the ‘Peake’ to even the odds.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a very good game but he needs support from the other two guards. The ‘Three Amigos’ lineup works best when everybody is humming. At this moment in time, Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul have not looked like themselves.
Houston deserves a lot of credit for their work on defense. The Rockets played a suffocating brand of defense that stifled Chris Paul’s effectiveness. Houston look like a totally different team to the team that finished the seeding games. You have to think that the Rockets have a real chance of winning the title if this defense can hold up.
The Thunder’s decision-making was pretty good in the first half of Game 1. Oklahoma City played an incisive, fast style of basketball which challenged the Rockets’ defense. OKC had a lot of success getting into the lane and finding good shots at the rim.
However, the offense fell into bad habits again during the second half. All of the ball movement dried up and the Thunder ended up running a lot of isolation plays. Oklahoma City did not play with the same confidence that they displayed in the first half.
Dennis Schroder was indecisive at the start of the fourth quarter. He stopped the ball and his attempts at puncturing the defense were contained ably by PJ Tucker. These were possessions that had terrible results for the Thunder. An offense which runs well is designed to produce good looks and limit turnovers.
Oklahoma City's offense produced contested looks at the rim and turnovers. At a time when the Thunder needed buckets to reduce the Rockets’ lead; the offense fell apart.
Billy Donovan has to focus on getting his team to iron out these issues. The Thunder cannot win the game if the team is making these little mistakes. Houston will not make mistakes when they have the opportunity to capitalise on the Thunder’s errors.
Chris Paul and the Switch:
A lot of the Thunder’s offense has been built off Chris Paul’s ability to run the pick and roll. Oklahoma City have been very good at forcing switches and allowing Paul to isolate on slow bigs. Paul’s proficiency in the pick and roll has allowed the Thunder to build a productive, efficient offense.
Paul’s game does not work as efficiently against a team like the Rockets who will switch through defensive assignments seamlessly. Elston Turner, the Rockets’ lead assistant coach, has been very good at implementing a switch coverage that is totally relentless.
Switch coverages are kryptonite for Chris Paul. Chris does not have the acceleration or speed to create separation from his man. Paul cannot run the offense if he has Eric Gordon in his face all of the time.
The other issue for Chris Paul is that the Rockets do not play a traditional big. The players who typically play center for Houston are mobile, lengthy forwards. Robert Covington and PJ Tucker are excellent defensive players who are very good at containing dribble penetration.
Chris will not suddenly find an extra gear of athleticism that allows him to miraculously beat the defense. Billy Donovan has to work out a way to get Paul free on offense so that he can play like the ‘Point God’.
Donovan can try to build more movement into the offense at the start of the possession. I would like to see Chris Paul cutting through screens before he receives the ball. Donovan could place Paul on the wing and then have Luguentz Dort screens Paul’s defender off the ball.
The aim of the off-ball screen would be to free Paul from his man when he catches the ball. Off-ball movement is needed to create confusion among the defense. Oklahoma City have to make the Rockets think carefully about switching defenders.
The Thunder had 13 turnovers in Game 2; this is simply too many turnovers to give up against a team like Houston. Oklahoma City have to value possession of the ball. The Thunder have picked up a bad habit over the last few games where possession is treated carelessly.
The solution for reducing the number of turnovers is not difficult. Oklahoma City have to run their offense precisely. All stray passes have to be cut out of the Thunder’s offense. The Rockets are capable of scoring a hell of a lot of points. Oklahoma City committing these unforced errors only help the Rockets grow leads during the game.
One of the Thunder’s advantages coming into this series was rebounding. The Rockets have fully committed to a small ball lineup where rebounding has been sacrificed for quickness on defense.
However, this advantage has not materialised during this series. Oklahoma City won the battle of the boards in Game 2 by seven rebounds. The Rockets were beaten on the rebound front 48-41.
However, the rebound differential is simply not enough when it is considered that the Rockets had eight steals. Houston were able to negate the Thunder’s rebounding advantage by snatching possessions away from Oklahoma City.
The Thunder have to secure defensive rebounds. There were too many times during Game 2 where Eric Gordon or PJ Tucker snuck inside and stole an offensive rebound.
Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel cannot be beaten by smaller players when it comes to securing boards. They have to box out on every single possession and stop the Rockets from getting these little wins.
Adams on Jeff Green:
The absence of Russell Westbrook has meant that Mike D’Antoni has introduced a few new wrinkles into his offensive system. D’Antoni has turned Jeff Green into a playmaking center. Green brought the ball up the court a lot during Game 2 and he was relied on to be the primary creator for the bench unit.
It was a decision which worked really well for D’Antoni. Jeff Green scored fifteen points and he was a match-up headache for the Thunder. Green is a serviceable shooter from outside and Thunder defense has to respect his deep threat.
Steven Adams took on the responsibility of defending Jeff Green in Game 2. Adams can defend the perimeter for short bursts at a time but he struggles to defend mobile, fast forwards such like Jeff Green. The Thunder cannot run a drop coverage as Jeff is more than happy to knock down looks from outside.
Adams lacks foot speed in this match-up and Green is able to blaze by Adams for easy looks at the rim. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel have both played in this series so far due to their defense. However, both centers are liabilities when matched up against players who force them to guard on the perimeter.
Billy Donovan has to seriously consider changing his lineup so that dribble penetration is contained more effectively. This decision might mean that Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel will play less minutes in favour of more mobile players.
Billy Donovan does have a few options in terms of smaller lineups. I personally like the idea of running Gallinari at center with Darius Bazley at Power Forward next to him. Oklahoma City will be able to run a five-out lineup that fully spaces the floor and creates space inside for Dennis Schroder to pull up at the elbow for a mid-range jumper.
Gallinari shifting to center would also mean that Darius Bazley can be included in the closing lineup. Bazley is a fast, rangy player who has proven to be a very good defensive player. I trust Bazley’s ability to stop drives more than I trust Adams in the same situation. Darius just has more speed.