I don’t know if sacrificial games are a thing among coaching circles, but it sure does seem like Thunder head coach Billy Donovan likes to employ the strategy from time to time. The sample size is small (four playoff series), but the Thunder have been shellacked in two of the Game 1’s.
Last season against San Antonio in the conference quarterfinals, the Thunder lost by 32 points in the opening game of that series. They looked completely outmatched and outclassed. However, the team played much better in Game 2, and earned a hard-fought victory (Dion with the push off!). OKC went on to win three of the next four games to earn a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Do I expect the same to happen with this team? Not necessarily. I don’t especially like comparing last season’s team to this year’s, as the teams are completely different. Last year’s squad was a much more talented, veteran outfit that had been through years of postseason wars. This year’s team features five rotation players who played in their first playoff game on Sunday. Most of them played like it, complete with jitters and awful stat lines.
But Game 1 definitely had the feel of an exploratory game for Donovan. Like he wanted at least one game to see how certain lineups would work against the Rockets.
Let’s see how Enes Kanter does defensively with James Harden on the floor. Answer: according to Donovan, he “can’t play Kanter“.
Let’s see how Jerami Grant performs as a small ball big. Answer: there is definitely potential for minutes due to his ability to switch defensively.
Let’s see how a Russell Westbrook/Norris Cole backcourt looks. What the hell? I mean, if it works, Donovan is a genius. If it doesn’t, he’s a failed mad scientist. In case you were wondering, the Westbrook/Cole backcourt saw 14 total minutes in the regular season. They were a +7 in that time, but 0-3 in the games it occurred (h/t @eflame_717).
Luckily, the Thunder have a track record of putting bad games behind them, and making the proper adjustments necessary to not only be competitive, but also victorious in a series. When the Thunder look back at Game 1, they can take solace in the fact the first half was basically even. True, the Rockets were uncharacteristically missing from deep in that first half, but the Thunder were playing uncharacteristically soft (getting slaughtered on the boards, allowing an atrocious amount of points in the paint).
The major difference in the 2nd half: the Rockets started hitting their shots, while the Thunder kept playing the same way. Adjustments will be made, but I also think, as simple as it sounds, that getting the first game jitters out of the way will help the Thunder be much more competitive in Game 2.
- Oklahoma City – None
- Houston – Sam Dekker (hand)
3 Big Things
Rebounding is one of those things that isn’t a thing, until it’s a thing. For example, if one team out-rebounds the other by 5, that doesn’t necessarily give them a huge advantage. But if those 5 rebounds happen to come on the offensive side of the basketball and they lead to 8 second chance points, then that can be a big deal in a close game.
Rebounding can also be a big deal if it is part of your identity. And for the Thunder, rebounding is a huge part of theirs. With all the attention Russell Westbrook garners on the offensive end, offensive rebounding becomes a useful weapon when all eyes are on number 0. In the regular season, the Thunder led the league in offensive rebound percentage and total rebound percentage, while finishing third in defensive rebound percentage. To say that rebounding is a big part of the Thunder’s scheme would be an understatement.
One game into the playoffs, and the Thunder have the worst rebounding percentage of the 16 playoff teams at 42.3%. That’s a big deal. Not only does it go against the game plan, but also against their psyche. Simply put, the Thunder played soft. The Rockets gang-rebounded to prevent OKC from crashing the offensive glass. On the other end of the floor, all the defensive switching from the Thunder allowed the Rockets to grab 14 offensive rebounds of their own, as the Thunder bigs were usually out of position when the ball went up. In all, the Rockets had 5 players that grabbed at least 5 boards, with Ryan Anderson and Patrick Beverley leading the way with 12 and 10 boards, respectively.
The issues on the glass were caused in part by the Thunder’s defensive game plan of switching everything. Steven Adams and Taj Gibson are good defensive players. But they aren’t going to keep up with James Harden on the perimeter for extended periods of time. Eventually, Harden will do what he does to everyone: get past them with his first step or freeze the defender and put up a shot. If I’m the Thunder, I force the ball out of Harden’s hands and make guys like Anderson, Beverley, and Ariza beat me. Anderson and Ariza were 0-5 on 3’s in Game 1. While Beverley was 4-6, I would almost dare him to duplicate those results.
Also, playing more players with defensive switchability (yeah, I made the word up) would help shore up what happened in the second half in Game 1. Giving guys like Jerami Grant, Domantas Sabonis, and, yes, even Semaj Christon more minutes could help the Thunder play a style that would be more conducive to switching, and also conducive to helping and recovering on shooters.
3. Victor Oladipo
In his defense, it was his first playoff game. He has been on record as saying he could not wait to finally play in a playoff game, but, whew, was that a stinker of a performance. Just 1-12 from the field and 0-6 from deep. At least he got to the line four times and made all four of them.
It really can’t get any worse for Oladipo, and you could tell he was nervous. There was a play in the 1st quarter that personified how the night was going to go for Vic. Andre Roberson got the defensive board and kicked it out to Oladipo who started a 2-on-2 fast break. As he went for the lay-up, he bobbled the attempt and missed the bunny. He made that play countless of time in his career, but on Monday, it just felt different. It was that kind of night for Mr. Feathery.
The Thunder are going to need a much better performance from Oladipo if they are going to make this series competitive. In the Thunder’s lone victory against the Rockets this season, Oladipo finished with a season-high 29 points on 12-18 shooting from the field. Not saying he has to reach those heights, but maybe something in the 18-21 point range would alleviate so much of the offensive workload that is placed on Westbrook. He has to be better. And he knows it.