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Opinion: The Thunder have to embrace small ball lineups

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The Thunder stumbled on an interesting wrinkle late in the fourth quarter of Game 3

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Game 3 was a tense affair that hung in the balance during the closing moments of the fourth quarter. The Rockets and Thunder exchanged body blows as they fought to secure an important win in Game 3. It was a battle of attrition as two weary teams fought through tough, stingy defenses as they executed their offense.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had played a good game up until that point. Gilgeous-Alexander was aggressive with the ball. His confidence grew during the game and the young Canadian was able to slice through Houston’s defensive coverage for looks at the rim.

However, it was the other two ‘Amigos’ who had out-shined Shai. Dennis Schroder produced one of those performances off the bench. Dennis has done this all season long and it was no different against the Rockets. Dennis’ quickness allowed him to get to the rim with ease.

Chris Paul had previously taken responsibility for the loss in Game 2. His plus minus was alarmingly poor and Paul did not look like himself. The cool and calm floor general had been replaced by a bothered, flustered point guard. Chris stepped up in a huge way in Game 3 and found his rhythm on offense.

The closing moments of Game 3 were chaotic. Paul was called for a foul on Harden as the Rockets inbounded the ball. There was an uncalled foul on Eric Gordon during an inbounds play. The Rockets were up two and PJ Tucker’s pass failed to hit its target. Houston turned the ball over and Oklahoma City had an opportunity to win the game.

The previous chaos had resulted in a contusion for Steven Adams. Adams was subbed out and Danilo Gallinari came into the game. The Thunder would not close the show with the trusted ‘Three Amigos’; Billy Donovan had put his trust in an untested lineup which featured Gallinari at center.

As Paul orchestrated the offense on a crucial offensive possession; the painted area was completely empty. There was a vast swathe of space for Paul to attack. The interior was not crowded by bodies like it had been during the entirety of the game. Gallinari’s presence dragged PJ Tucker away from the rim.

Tucker, the Rockets’ conductor on defense, could only watch as Chris Paul beat Harden off the dribble. Jeff Green totally abandoned Luguentz Dort and played free safety. Green rotated over onto Paul. Danuel House did the exact same thing; House made a corner rotation and sagged off Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

It was one of few defensive breakdowns for the Rockets and it was costly for Houston. Paul threaded the pass through two taller defenders and Gilgeous-Alexander received the pass in acres of space. Shai calmly knocked down the corner ball to give the Thunder the lead.

From that point onwards, it was all Thunder. Oklahoma City outscored the Rockets by 15-3 in overtime. Adams did not play; Coach Donovan chose to run with the unit that featured Gallinari at center. Dort’s defense came up big again. Lu played valiantly against Harden all game long and he made another huge play in overtime.

Dort picked up the offensive rebound off a Gallinari miss. The Montreal native drove towards the rim where he was met by James Harden. Dort was very clever; Lu delayed the shot and waited for the contact. Harden picked up his sixth foul and was out of the game. Houston’s offense was crippled by the sixth foul.

It was a story of two divergent paths during the overtime period, Oklahoma City were ascendant and the team played with real swagger. Chris Paul knocked down two outrageous threes and put the Thunder in a position to win the game. In contrast, the Rockets were ailing and their offense was failing.

The Thunder eventually came away with a hard-fought victory. The series stands at 2-1 and the Thunder will have a chance to even the series tonight. Coach Billy Donovan has a big decision to make in regard to his rotation.

Oklahoma City pulled away from Houston in overtime. The Gallinari at center lineup was hugely important in the Thunder finding an extra slither of space on the offensive end of the floor. There was so much space for Dort to drive to the rim or snag offensive rebounds.

Donovan has to work out whether he would like to play this lineup more minutes going forward in this series. Billy has traditionally trusted Adams to play big minutes in the playoffs. However, it might be time for Donovan to consider less minutes for Steven.

Steven is a very good player but he matches up poorly with the Houston Rockets. Adams is not all that good at containing dribble penetration when he is switched onto a guard. I can understand Steven getting beaten by Harden but he has also struggled to stop Eric Gordon from getting to the hole.

Moreover, Mike D’Antoni has put Jeff Green in pick and roll actions where Green operates as a ball-handler. Green plays center for the Rockets which means that Steven has to match up with Jeff on the perimeter. This is not an ideal situation for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City have ran a drop coverage on the pick and roll this season with Steven Adams. Adams usually drops back to the free throw line when this play is being ran at the top of the key. Oklahoma City cannot afford to run this coverage when Green is in the game running the point.

Jeff Green is a more than serviceable shooter from deep, Green is currently shooting 52.4% on 7 3PA per game. Green will make these looks if he is left alone by the defense. Furthermore, Jeff Green is a competent passer when driving to the rim. Green is happy to dish the ball to corner shooters when pressured by the defense.

The corner three is a highly efficient look for the Rockets when Ben McLemore or PJ Tucker is sitting in the corner. The drop coverage cannot be run in this series as it will result in good looks for the Rockets’ offense.

Billy Donovan has chosen to run a form of the hedge coverage in the pick and roll. Adams is forced to guard Green on the perimeter and his lack of quickness is exploited by the Rockets’ forward. Jeff can blow past Adams for easy looks at the rim.

Adams’ rebounding does provide value to the Thunder but Steven is losing the ball in other areas of the game. Steven has turned the ball over 2.7 times per game during this series. The good work which he does on the boards is somewhat negated by his turnovers.

In theory, Adams is a good option in the low post. I certainly believed that Adams could be useful for the Thunder in a series against the Rockets. However, the Rockets’ defensive scheming means that entry passes are so hard to land without Houston deflecting the ball.

Houston’s cross-matching and switching has resulted in a variant of a zone coverage. At any one point in time, the Rockets can have three defenders swarming Adams down low. It is not an efficient look for Steven and it is a perfect opportunity for the Rockets to create turnovers.

At this moment in time, Steven has not contributed a lot on offense or defense. The results from the previous three games suggest that it will be difficult to win with Steven Adams playing a lot of minutes. The lineup that the Thunder ran in overtime of Game 3 worked very well and should be played more minutes.

There are criticisms of this data that have to be acknowledged. Harden did not play during the last four minutes of the overtime period. The Rockets’ offense will be significantly better with James Harden running the show.

However, I will say that there are a few reasons to believe that this lineup can be successful. The floor was so much better spaced with Adams out. It was easier for the Thunder to get into the lane and get looks at the rim. Lu Dort benefitted from the extra space hugely.

Dort is a terrible shooter and has been a non-factor from deep during this series. The Rockets sag off Dort and allow him to shoot every single time. Houston were able to do this when Adams was on the floor as PJ Tucker was located in a central position where he could help on Dort.

Without Adams, Dort is able to get to the rim for layups. Luguentz Dort is a solid finisher at the rim and is decent at drawing fouls. It is certainly a better option than Lu casting up jumpers from behind the arc.

A lineup with Gallinari or Bazley at center also draws PJ Tucker out of his position near the rim. Tucker is the glue that holds the Rockets’ defense together. PJ is excellent at spotting danger and communicating to his team-mates. D’Antoni is able to maximise Tucker’s ability to communicate when Tucker defends Adams.

PJ can sit near the rim and see the whole floor ahead of him. Tucker is able to communicate accurate information when he sees all of the hardwood. Gallinari at center means that Tucker has to guard Gallo on the perimeter. PJ is a capable perimeter defender but his ability to observe the floor is lessened by the adjustment.

Tucker can no longer sit on the back line of the defense if he has to guard Gallinari at the 3-point break. His court vision is hugely reduced in this instance. The Thunder make it more difficult for the Rockets to stop offensive possessions by making Tucker guard on the frontline.

The Thunder will be worse defensively with Adams off the floor. Gallinari is not a good defender and he suffers from the same issues that Adams does. Danilo lacks quickness and can be blown by fairly easily. Gallinari is not a good defensive player; Gallo’s defensive rating stands at 111.2.

However, Gallinari brings so much more than Adams on offense. Gallinari can be relied upon to score efficiently on decent volume. Danilo’s offensive contributions make up for his defensive liabilities. The same cannot be said for Steven Adams.

Game 4 is a pivotal game in this series. Billy Donovan has to decide whether he sacrifices defense in favour of improving the offense. Whatever the result, Game 4 will be a thriller.