In their three losses in the first round of the playoffs, the Thunder have struggled mightily on offense–especially when playing their best defender on James Harden (Lu Dort). OKC won a shootout in Game 3, and their already anemic offense cratered the second Dennis Schröder was ejected in Game 4. But even if they revive their scoring attack for the remainder of the series (a tall order), they won’t give themselves much of a chance unless their perimeter defense is corrected as well.
The Rockets have taken over 45 three-point attempts per game the last three seasons, which all rank at the top of the history books. This season, they hit 34.5% of those shots. Against the Thunder, they’ve increased in both volume (52.8!) and efficiency (36.4%) from deep.
What if I told you it could be worse?
Much has been made of the streakiness of Houston’s shot selection, and the variability that comes with shooting so many bombs. But, given the open shots they’re allowing, Oklahoma City has been lucky not to have endured even more flurries than they have.
Despite winning with discipline and veteran savvy all season, Oklahoma City has been lost while trying to defend Houston behind the arc. Despite four games of familiarity and extended time to study and practice exclusively for the micro-Rockets, OKC was lackadaisical in Game 5.
One need look no further than the first minute of the first quarter, when OKC was caught flatfooted–a harbinger of the blowout to come:
Here’s an example of the Thunder’s initial help working, before they forget to keep rotating with half of the shot clock remaining.
Four defenders end up all the way out of the strong-side paint, where two of the Rockets’ worst three-point shooters are stationed. It’s not a difficult read for Eric Gordon to find Danuel House–Houston’s best shooter on the court.
Against a Russell Westbrook drive here, we have a rare case where Steven Adams shouldn’t have to pick his poison between help at the rim or in the lethal corner. But he waves an arm without actually cutting off the drive, and stays parked at the top of the key where he is useless. That leaves Darius Bazley to do his best in the poison-picking role, doing admirably for a rookie on the big stage:
It’s not easy to defend the Rockets–they have burned through the league despite every opponent knowing exactly which shots they’re hunting. But a disciplined, capable matchup in the playoffs shouldn’t be this clueless so late in a series. Even the more simple actions, like this one communicated obviously between Adams and Chris Paul, are not being executed:
Here’s another depressing episode. Dort gets looked off from Westbrook’s pass, and makes the delay worse by stutter stepping between potential shooters.
It’s whatever. Guarding two players is impossible. But even if Dort had read the pass and committed to the right threat (Covington), no help was on the way for the next easy pass. The over-helpers are hanging out in the paint, content to wait for a rebound from a hyper efficient shot after over-committing to stop a much less deadly one by Westbrook.
Here’s a better display of inside presence from Nerlens Noel, who provides the rim buffer that Billy Donovan has repeatedly said is essential to the team. The problem is what comes after the drive:
Confusion and over-correction abounds. A competent group could talk their way through this kickout by the time the ball swung from Jeff Green to Gordon. The Thunder are not that group, and are toast before the shot clock hits 15. And again, look how resigned Schröder is to box out his non-shooter while Houston fires away from deep.
Here’s a rare case where OKC walks the tight rope of helping from the corners somewhat well, scrambling to at least make Houston’s shooters work a little.
Even this is bittersweet, though, if you note that Adams is out of the frame for the meaningful part of the possession. Donovan’s commitment to keep a traditional big on the floor has not ensured interior strength because of Houston’s speed. The smaller Thunder players are often duking it out on the boards, losing back-breaking rebounds to the relentless P.J. Tucker.
Here’s how a more competent team defense should look. In back-to-back possessions in the Clippers/Mavericks Game 6, both teams navigate an initial double-team before scrambling to recover and at least contest shooters dotting the perimeter after the ball swings.
They are not as lucky as the Thunder were on so many Rocket attempts (both shots go down), but there is less zombie-like confusion from the likes of Trey Burke, Luka Doncic, Landry Shamet, and Ivica Zubac. These are younger, more limited defenders than the Thunder have on the court, giving themselves more of a prayer against potent 4- or 5-out offensive units. Their vulnerabilities are still there, but they are working smarter and harder to overcome them.
Will OKC regain its head along with its heart in an elimination game? Watch the arc early, and you’ll know what you’re in for.