The Thunder’s season is officially over after a tough seven game series against the Rockets. It seems like a good time to take a look at how each Thunder player who played significant minutes did in this series. Every player will be given a grade.
In this series, the Thunder had eight guys who played over 97 total minutes. There is a significant drop off in terms of minutes played from the eighth guy in the rotation (Nerlens Noel) to the ninth player. Terrance Ferguson only played 42 total minutes in four games.
Grades will be determined by evaluating whether a player met their expectations for the playoffs. The actual performance of the player in these seven games will also factor into the final grade. Players will be graded from highest to lowest.
Chris Paul: A+
The fourth quarter blunder in Game 7 should not take away from how fantastic Paul was this series. Paul was the leading scorer for OKC; he averaged 21.3 PPG on an efficient 60.4 TS%. Chris was able to handle the heavy workload of being the top guy on a playoff team for all of the 37 minutes that he played on a nightly basis.
Paul’s best performance came in Game 6. Chris Paul scored 15 of his 28 points in the final quarter to avoid elimination. Paul was the steady hand during the pressure-filled moments that the Thunder grew to know very well this year. When OKC needed a bucket, Paul was there to answer the call.
My only critiques of Paul’s play in this series were his sloppiness with the ball and a lack of selfishness. Chris turned it over 3.3 times a game, an uncharacteristic stat for someone who is notorious for ball security.
Paul also never took more than 20 shots in any game. This harmed the Thunder as Paul is OKC’s best one on one scorer. Paul averaged a team high 1.09 points per iso this year. I think this is the result of Paul being a team first guy who wants other guys to get going. Paul may have been judicious with his shots in order to manage his workload.
Paul was clearly the second best player in a series that included two former MVPs in the form of Harden and Westbrook.
Lu Dort: A+
In a six game span, Lu Dort went from being someone that only Thunder and Arizona State fans knew to being a household name and media darling.
Dort will be remembered in this series for his out-of-nowhere 30 point Game 7 performance. Dort outscored everybody else on the court on that night. However, his defense on James Harden this series was mesmerizing to watch. Dort brought back memories of a prime Andre Roberson locking Harden up three years earlier.
When matched up against Dort, Harden scored 65 points on 17/54 shooting (31.5 FG%). Against everybody else, Harden scored 143 points on 49/88 shooting (55.7 FG%). Lu did a great job at using his size to his advantage when Harden drove to the basket. Dort stonewalled Harden and avoided falling for Harden’s tricks.
On the perimeter, Dort did a great job at staying vertical and remaining disciplined with his shot contest. Dort contested in creative ways and rarely created contact with Harden on his follow through.
Harden is one of the greatest scorers of this generation. He will get his buckets regardless of who is on him but Dort made him work for every single look throughout this entire series. Dort’s shooting woes hurt the Thunder at times on the offensive end. The Thunder were able to adjust to this by letting Dort cut and drive to the basket more often as the series progressed.
Dort’s strong performance in this series can be summed up in one sentence: Dort is an undrafted rookie but he handled himself like a seasoned vet.
Darius Bazley: A-
Since the season restart, Bazley has shown that he has the potential to be an NBA starter for a playoff team. Darius faced legitimate questions about his ability to stay on the floor in the playoffs and he showed that he definitely could.
In Game 5 & 6, Bazley went to the line 10 times. Bazley showed that he can attack the basket and draw fouls. Bazley’s efficiency from outside was a question mark pre-COVID but his shooting was an asset to the team in this series as he went 11-22 (50 FG%) from deep. His shooting form looked more natural than what it looked liked at the beginning of the season.
Many fans begged Billy Donovan to give Bazley more minutes this series but for whatever reason Bazley did not get more minutes. This is a valid criticism on the coaching staff. Bazley had the third best Net Rating on the team.
In 19 total minutes, the Three Guard lineup with Bazley and Adams had an impressive +15.8 Net Rating. Their performance together does raise the question of why Donovan did not utilize this lineup more.
On defense, Bazley was able to keep up with Houston. Darius used his size and length to his advantage. Bazley did well on switches. Per 36 minutes, Bazley was the Thunder’s 2nd best rebounder; he averaged 13.4 boards.
Darius deserved more minutes than he received this series. Billy should have given him a longer leash to work with.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: B+
When it comes to evaluating the Thunder’s three young guys, it’s fair to say that Shai was the worst one of the three. This is not a knock on his performance, Bazley and Dort just performed really well.
Shai’s first playoff run with the Thunder came with a mixed bag of results. SGA had two great games, two awful games and three okay games. There were glimpses of the type of player Shai can eventually become with his scoring. SGA was excellent in Game 2 & 3; he scored 31 & 23 points in these games.
However, there were ugly games where you can clearly see the lights being too bright for the sophomore guard. Game 1 and Game 5 were good examples of his inconsistency. Shai only scored nine and four points respectively.
Shai was too hesitant at times when it came to looking to score the ball. He was also bit too passive for my liking. Shai’s grade is also harmed by the fact that the Rockets kept picking on him on switches and Shai was never really able to adjust to this.
This is not his fault, he is just currently too slender to guard the Rockets big perimeter players on drives. Guys like Harden, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon picked on Shai and would hunt him out in the half court.
This is something that Shai will need to work on. However, the positives of his play should not be overlooked. Shai was able to hit clutch shots that helped the Thunder a lot. Overall, this was a good start to Shai’s playoff performances with the Thunder.
Dennis Schroder: B
Much like Shai, Schroder was all over the place in this series. His Game 3 & 4 were fantastic. Dennis scored a total of 59 points on 20/39 (51.3 FG%) shooting in those games.
But the other five games of the series were either abysmal or mediocre performances. Dennis’ performances depended on whether or not he was shooting the ball well. His pull up three pointers can either be a back breaker or a bail out shot for Houston. Schroder’s three point shooting worsened in the series. He shot just 28.3% on 6.4 attempts which is significantly lower than his regular season numbers of 38.5% on five attempts a game.
Schroder had opportunities late in Game 7 to put OKC in a winning position but he simply missed shots he typically makes. Houston had no answer for Schroder when he was on fire and it is unfortunate that Dennis seemed to go through shooting funks throughout the series.
There were times throughout the series that Dennis would stop any momentum that the Thunder was building by having a string of bad possessions. These sequences gave Houston reprieves that the Rockets’ did not deserve.
On defense, Schroder did a great job at being a pest. He was an irritant to Harden and the Rockets.
Danilo Gallinari: C
It seemed like Donovan was too timid in allowing Gallinari to play heavy minutes. Gallinari only averaged 30.3 minutes a game and just 27 minutes in Game 7.
This could be explained by Danilo’s inability to defend against the small and fast Rockets due to his size and slowness. Gallinari’s games came in two extreme sides of the spectrum. Gallo was either really good or really bad.
He had four games with 17 points or more and three games with his scoring in single digits. My biggest gripe with Gallinari is his hesitance to take shots in volume as he took 10 shots or less in three games.
That cannot happen for one of your better offensive players. Danilo is a rhythm shooter and if he does not get more shots to get into a rhythm then he will shoot poorly from outside like he did this series as he only shot 32.4% from deep.
Danilo also struggled passing the ball in the post efficiency; Gallo averaged over two turnovers a game. Gallinari’s value comes from his shooting and his ability to generate looks for himself. Gallo shooting the ball just six times in Game 7 is a wasted commodity.
Steven Adams: C-
Poor Steven Adams, he has become somewhat of a punching bag for Thunder fans this series. The Rockets were always a matchup issue for Adams and everybody besides the people that made the decisions acknowledged this.
Adams was thrown to the wolves and got exposed badly by Houston. He averaged a double double this series but it felt like he should have gotten more rebounds.
There were countless examples in this series where Adams would lose the battle on the boards against smaller guys like P.J. Tucker. Houston repeatedly got second chance points and more shots at the basket. The Rockets shot the ball 12 more times than the Thunder in a two point win in Game 7. That is where the Thunder ultimately lost the game.
The Rockets lack of a traditional big made Adams vulnerable on the defensive end against Houston’s fives, Jeff Green and P.J. Tucker, whom can shoot the ball from outside efficiently, gave Steven fits.
Steven had to guard on the perimeter and that resulted in the paint being left unprotected. Houston knew this and the Rockets were able to get easy looks around the rim.
Adams was not good this series but the blame is not solely on him. The coaching staff holds some responsibility for being so stubborn with their approach to Adams. They continued to play him heavy minutes when it has been proven time and time again that Steven benefits from playing less minutes.
You could tell at the end of games that Adams was running on fumes. This hurt the Thunder more than it benefited them. Adams could have contributed in this series but running Steve into the ground like OKC did made him a negative on the court.
This is the third straight playoff series where Adams’ playing time has come into question. The same questions were raised against the Jazz in 2018 and the Blazers in 2019. In the regular season, Adams is fine as a starting center.
However, the playoffs are a different story. In the playoffs, the intensity rises and non-shooting bigs are exposed by teams who space the floor really well. How trustworthy is a guy like Adams in the playoffs?
Nerlens Noel: C-
I was not sure how playable Noel was in this series. He shares similar concerns with Adams. However, Noel ended up averaging 14 minutes in all seven games. Noel averaged just three points on 47.1 FG%. The same issues that Noel had during the season showed up in this series. Nerlens blocked five shots but he also fouled 15 times in just 97 total minutes.
Noel is a great defender in the sense that he goes for it all on his swats. It can result in a big block. His efforts can also result in a bad foul.
Overall, Noel held his own in his time on the floor but I would have preferred some of his minutes going to someone like Bazley or Gallinari who can impact the game in a bigger way.
Billy Donovan: D+
And finally, the worst grade of them all goes to Billy Donovan. At this point, he is who he is— a good coach who is great at developing a culture and growing young players. However, when it comes to the X’s and O’s, he falls short when compared to his counterparts.
Despite the slow starts the starting lineup had in the first (-20.0 Net Rating) and third (-14.2 Net Rating) quarters, Billy stuck with his guys that got him to that point. The evidence proved that the starting lineup was not working. The starters had an atrocious -38.5 Net Rating in 74 minutes.
Donovan gave some guys, like Adams and Noel, too much rope while not giving others, like Bazley, enough rope.
The Thunder never truly went small for extended period of times despite the limited success that Oklahoma City had with small lineups. The Game 3 OT win occurred when Gallinari was the five in the lineup that outscored the Rockets 15-3 in five minutes.
Donovan’s biggest criticism will be the final play of the Thunder’s season. The play designed had Gallinari shooting a pull up three off a screen. Donovan had essentially three chances at the end of the game to draw up a play.
Is that really the best shot he could have created in that situation? Was Shai really the best guy to inbound the ball in that situation? It is impossible to know but this is now Billy’s third straight playoff trip where his adjustments have been an Achilles’ heel to the team.
I like Billy and think he could be great for a rebuilding team. The Thunder are going to go through a rebuilding process soon. However, when this team starts to contend again I think the best course of action for the franchise is to find someone else to put them over the top.
Billy being a good culture guy and a likeable coach is great but that can only take you so far in a profession where results matter the most. It has been proven numerous times if a coach cannot make proper adjustments and create a competent system that will bring the most out of his players; they will most likely not see their team win a championship. In Billy case, he has not been able get out of the First Round in four tries.
Billy was supposed to be that guy after Scott Brooks laid the foundations but that just never happened. Reports indicate that the Thunder want Donovan back this offseason; it looks like Billy will be given the chance to help grow the young guys. He is good at developing youth, he spent 26 years turning college athletes into pros.