Start time - 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
Over the last few games, Oklahoma City have struggled to defend the 3-point line effectively which has cost the team in a big way. Minnesota and Utah both got on a roll from downtown and dispatched the Thunder with cool precision. There have been good performances from the Thunder’s young guys but the perimeter defense is starting to become a concern.
The Thunder’s help rotations have not been timely lately which is usually one of the team’s greatest strengths. Oklahoma City have been surprisingly strong on the defensive end of the floor, 9th in Defensive Rating, and this success has been driven by OKC’s willingness to contest shots.
Darius Bazley is the prime example of the Thunder’s defensive effort. Bazley covers the court tirelessly game after game and does not allow an inch of breathing room for the opposing team. He always seems to get a hand straight in the air, blocking the sightline of his assignment.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is prone to lapses on the less glamorous end of the floor but his activity cannot be faulted. Gilgeous-Alexander contests 7.2 shots per game and leads the Thunder in deflections. He is OKC’s disruptor, the player who does not allow the opposing team to settle into a rhythm.
At the moment, both players are struggling to effectively defend the perimeter due to the team’s communication being not as good as early in the season. Luguentz Dort and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are both vocal players who help organise the Thunder defense. Without those, Shai must step into an unfamiliar role that he is still learning.
Great defense is played by settled teams who rely on players who know their role and have chemistry with each other. The Thunder’s starting lineup is shifting on a nightly basis and finding that consistency is very difficult.
The players have to be more vocal in calling out plays and movement off the ball; that is the only way to ensure that the help defense is effective and that individual players are not isolated in tough scenarios.
The loss against Utah identified those weaknesses. The Jazz run an offense that is frequently referred to as The Blender. This offensive system relies on constant movement around the court to disorientate the opposing team and generate two or three different play actions within a single possession.
Executing three good help rotations in a row while remaining aware of the threats lurking off the ball is hard. The Jazz punish breakdowns by nailing wide open threes and they got so many of these looks by moving the ball around and waiting for an error to happen.
The Thunder’s perimeter could do with coaching when it comes to defending secondary and tertiary actions. In today’s league, coaches will run possessions where a variety of sets will be called. A 1-5 pick and roll involving Mitchell and Gobert may lead to a pin down screen freeing Jordan Clarkson for a wide open basket.
The best defenses have one brain and persistence in spades. Tonight’s opponents are the perfect example of a unit working in harmony to deny all easy offensive options. Milwaukee have made intelligent, dogged defense their calling card.
The task for the Thunder tonight is very different to previous games. While Milwaukee do boast shooters such as Grayson Allen and Khris Middleton, the Bucks like to attack the paint.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dexterity and finishing as a slasher helps drive the Bucks’ offense. Giannis can seemingly magic easy layups out of nowhere with his long strides, length and controlled finishing. Antetokounmpo’s ability as an inside scorer creates pressure at the rim and forces teams to send two defenders at him. The Thunder will need to use both Bazley and Pokusevski to guard Giannis.
He is adept at punishing the double teams and finding teammates for good looks on the perimeter. Brook Lopez and now Serge Ibaka benefit greatly whenever they pop out for jumpers.
In the past, teams could sit off Giannis and allow him to launch jumpers but Jrue Holiday has changed the equation. Jrue being on the court means that Giannis can morph into being a roll man and bulldoze his way to the rim at will. There are no easy answers when it comes to Giannis and the Bucks.
I have not even mentioned Khris Middleton and his surgical three-level scoring. Oklahoma City have got their task cut out for them on the defensive end of the floor. It is going to be a tough game but the Thunder can remain competitive by having a good night from outside.
Milwaukee allow the most made 3-point field goals per game in the NBA. Milwaukee sacrifice tight defense above the break in favour of completely nullifying the opposing team’s interior scoring. It is a strategy that has won the Bucks an NBA title.
However, the strategy can be high-variance in terms of outcome. A good shooting night from Shai or Lindy Waters III may make the game more uncomfortable for Milwaukee than they would like.