Wake Up Call: OKC’s New ‘Lineup of Death’

Deep breaths, people, deep breaths.

After the Rockets’ fourth quarter comeback, after Russell Westbrook missed the free throw, after James Harden tried his absolute hardest to draw a foul using his patented swoop maneuver on the final possession and then missed the subsequent shot, and after I woke up this morning. That’s how long it took for it to sink in that we had won this game.

Yet it really comes as no surprise. The Thunder have outplayed the Rockets for large portions of all three games, performing like the superior team in an almost nonchalant fashion. But an NBA game lasts 48 minutes for a reason, and Houston’s ability to pounce on any and every sign of weakness can’t be discounted.

What was different about last night then? Was it Westbrook’s crazy-efficient 32, 13, and 13? Or the fact that he only attempted one three point shot? Taj Gibson’s 20-point night? Was it because the team shot 55% from the floor? Or that they held the Rockets to 28.6% from three?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

But the key to the game, and really the key to unlocking all of the items mentioned above, was the rotations. Whether Billy Donovan used the first two games to test things out, or just flat out needed to change his game plan, the Game 3 minute distributions were in stark contrast to what we saw earlier in the series.

It started before the game even tipped off, when one tweet from our fearless leader Royce Young was able to bring Thunder Nation to attention.

In the 21 minutes he had logged in the series, the Thunder were -21 with him on the floor. With that being said, he was the clear backup point guard and I’m not sure how many people could have predicted he would be wearing a suit for Game 3. Donovan meant business.

From there, the overall rotation was cut from 12 deep to 10, with Kyle Singler and Domantas Sabonis never taking off their warmups. How were those spare minutes distributed?

Primarily to the trio of Gibson, Doug McDermott, and Alex Abrines. Most importantly those minutes came all together, forming a small-ball lineup of Gibson-McDermott-Roberson-Abrines-Westbrook.

The difference was immediate and drastic. Suddenly the floor spacing that has been desperately needed all year appeared, and the lane was opened up for Westbrook’s penetration and Gibson’s isolation from the low block and high post. It was beautiful.

Take for example Gibson’s play of the game. For every Thunder fan begging the team to take some of the offensive burden off of Westbrook, but without knowing what that looks like, check this out. With McDermott and Abrines spread out to each wing, and Westbrook up top, Gibson has virtually free reign to take Nenê to the rim. And boy did he ever.

This creates somewhat of a moral quandary for the Thunder. On the bench you have close to $200 million in assets in Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, as well as the remnants of a roster philosophy of days past. Bully Ball was world-beating no more than 11 months ago against a fantastic Spurs team.

But this is the playoffs, and you kinda just gotta suck it up. Kanter’s viability was expressed explicitly in Game 1, and Adams too has looked a step slow all series. It’s small sample-size theater and you have to adjust to whatever gives you the best chance to win.

The Golden State Warriors’ “Lineup of Death” earned its name because of the sheer impossibility of guarding it. This was because there were five players on the floor who can shoot and spread the floor, with the ability also to pump-fake and make a play for a teammate if the situation arose. While OKC’s small-ball lineup certainly isn’t the same caliber of death lineup, the same advantages are present.

McDermott and Abrines have legitimate shooting credentials, and even if we can all agree they aren’t Klay Thompson the defense still has to respect their spot-up ability, thus the floor spacing. Where they have really surprised and impressed is their ability to attack closeouts, pump-faking and getting into the lane due to (once again) the reduced number of help defenders coming to meet them.

The problem has always been on the defensive side of the ball. Shooters usually aren’t great defenders, and believe me these guys aren’t an exception to the rule. Are their minutes worth it?

Tonight exposed a very crucial defensive truth. While the Rockets are an excellent scoring team, they aren’t exactly an excellent creating team. Their roster was perfectly constructed for a ball-dominant point guard, filled out with mostly spot up shooters. Of the 8 players seeing minutes in this series, only Harden and Lou Williams have the ability to create from scratch (Eric Gordon is great in pick-and-roll but not from straight isolation). When you consider that Williams shoots it every time he creates, the only real creating-playmaker is Harden.

This allows the Thunder to play their slower-footed shooters on defense. While they probably can’t stay in front of a creator, it’s pretty easy to just crowd spot-up shooters and run them off the line, something the Thunder did excellently holding Houston to 10/35 from behind the arc. Roberson is there to guard Harden, and the Thunder have done a much better job of hard-hedging our doubling his high screens instead of the disastrous switching or sagging.

This pays the biggest dividends when Russell Westbrook is off the floor. In the previous two games, every time #0 subbed out every Thunder fan watched the game through a little peephole in their interlocked fingers, their eyes darting back and forth between the court and the clock, counting the seconds until he returned.

But when you pack the floor with players who are threats to score and space the floor, suddenly the second unit isn’t a total dud and makes Norris Cole look actually…competent. The McDermott/Abrines combination allows for sequences like this, with a pick-and-roll dominating one side of the floor and help defenders unable to recover in time.

In the nine minutes with Westbrook off the floor, the team was -1. Donovan will take that 10 times out of 10.

In summary, more Taj, more Dougie, and more Alex (wow we really need a cool nickname for Abrines). And preferably, all at the same time.

 

Follow-up thoughts:

  • Why did the Rockets decide to start switching high ball screens? After creating a huge advantage for themselves in Game 1, D’Antoni seems to have changed his scheme. The tables have turned, and in Game 3 we saw several times where Russell Westbrook drew Anderson or Capela on a switch and backed the ball out a la Harden on Kanter/Adams, and easily scored. I don’t know why they made that change but by all means go ahead and keep doing that.
  • No one seems to be taking this Patrick Beverley villain thing seriously. I was very disappointed by the the lack of boo’s I heard in Game 3, and then during the game we just decided to embrace him when he dives into the crowd? I can only hope that the words being whispered into his ear are some kind of Get Out hypnotism-type-thing and when the moments right that fan will trigger Beverley into letting Westbrook score on him in a crucial moment.

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