On a macro level, a playoff series is like a game of chess: moves and counter-moves.
As much as we love to complain about individual plays on the micro-level, the missed shots (both contested and err umm…uncontested), the turnovers and the missed calls that may have swung the outcome, those things don’t really translate to the next game.
There have been strategic moves made throughout the series. Between Game 2 and Game 3, the Thunder readjusted their rotations and reconfigured their pick-and-roll defense to great effect. In Game 4 Houston responded by going even smaller than normal, limiting Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela’s minutes to just 38 combined and bumping Eric Gordon and Lou Williams over 30 minutes each.
If the Thunder want to win three straight games, they’re going to need a counter-move. And as I talked about yesterday, it needs to involve finding an identity that’s a little more organized than “watch Russell Westbrook and do your best to keep up!”
So when I began to think about the best possible version of this team, more and more it just kept coming back to the Rockets. If you were going to pick ideal teammates and an ideal playing style to surround Westbrook with, it would closely resemble Houston’s.
Then I came up with a crazy idea. Why wait?
Almost every single player on the two teams has a direct counterpart. James Harden’s resemblance to Russell Westbrook’s role goes without saying. Ryan Anderson is 6’10, can pick-and-pop and spreads the floor as an excellent spot-up shooter while playing passable defense at the 4 position–boom that describes Doug McDermott to a T. Clint Capela is a freakish athlete who can run rim-to-rim catching lobs and blocking shots=a slightly more polished Jerami Grant.
Patrick Beverley is solely in the game to make life hard for the other team’s best player and any offensive production is a bonus, just like Andre Roberson. Trevor Ariza is a utility player who can play multiple positions, is a good but not great defender, a good but not great shooter. At least for this series, that explains Victor Oladipo. And Nenê is a hard-nosed garbageman who will score off the pick-and-roll or offensive rebounds and can defend the paint, a not-as-effective version of Steven Adams.
The only pieces that don’t translate as well are Eric Gordon and Lou Williams. The scoring off the bench has been huge for the Rockets, and frankly the Thunder don’t have anyone who could carry the load that these two can. However, from a floor spacing and shooting perspective, as well as a “not afraid to come in and fire up shots” perspective, Alex Abrines fits the bill. Williams’ only connection to the Thunder backup PGs is maybe his affinity for turnovers?
But if you’re going to make a bold move, you gotta dive in head-first (do not attempt at home). Here’s what it would look like if Houston’s strict 8-man rotation was copied exactly.
(The minutes per game average was taken from Games 2, 3, and 4 since the garbage time in Game 1 skewed the statistics. The +/- on the far right shows the difference that would need to be accounted for)
Ryan Anderson: 27.3 mpg –> Doug McDermott (16.3 mpg) +9.0
Trevor Ariza: 40.7 mpg –> Victor Oladipo (38.3 mpg) +2.4
Clint Capela: 21.3 mpg –> Jerami Grant (19.7 mpg) +1.6
Patrick Beverley: 28.7 mpg –> Andre Roberson (37.7 mpg) -9.0
James Harden: 38 mpg –> Russell Westbrook (39.7 mpg) -1.7
Nenê Hilario: 21.7 mpg –> Steven Adams (30 mpg) -8.3
Eric Gordon: 34 mpg –> Alex Abrines (12.3 mpg) +21.7
Lou Williams: 27.7 mpg –> Norris Cole/Semaj Christon (8.3 mpg) +19.4
Ok, it’s a good start. Obviously there are some flaws here, for instance playing either Norris Cole or Semaj Christon for 28 minutes would trigger the apocalypse, and no one wants that. You also can’t just completely ignore Taj Gibson, who has been one of the better players in the entire series.
But this is a step in the right direction. There’s a very clear purpose to this rotation: speed and scoring. In addition to just the minutes distribution, you would need to implement Houston’s fast-paced, free-wheeling philosophy. If Games 2-4 taught us anything, it’s that the Thunder plays best when their metaphorical seatbelt is nice and loose and everyone is free to move about the cabin.
In half court situations, an increased usage of the high pick-and-roll surrounded by shooting would certainly be a more efficient offense than straight-isolation, while still activating the best player on the floor (Westbrook, duh) and giving him opportunities to make plays.
Isn’t it interesting that Beverley’s minutes average is only 29? Conventional wisdom, at least as applied to the Thunder, is that Roberson needs to be on the floor every minute that Harden is. It’s not like Houston has another elite defender that they’re throwing on Westbrook. Their philosophy is clear though, that offense is more important and they aren’t trying to do everything at all times. Both of these teams are flawed, but one has embraced it and is leaning into it. Maybe it’s time for the other one to as well.
Other things I love: 1) Oladipo playing 40 minutes. That dude should be on the floor for every single second that Westbrook sits. Every single one. 2) Adams being able to run and gun, because he’s truly underrated amongst NBA big men in transition, but at the same time won’t have to come out to guard on the perimeter since Nenê only operates 12 feet and in. 3) More Dougie McBuckets, who has seen his minutes increase every game and has earned them with his overall effort making up for the weaknesses he has.
What would the game look like if the Thunder mirrored the Rockets? Probably pretty strange. There would be threes flying from everywhere and a lot of points on the board, though I’d argue that the Thunder players in the matchup are far superior defensively.
But the outcome would be decided by effort instead of x’s and o’s, and through four games it’s pretty clear which team has given a lot more effort.
Billy Donovan, it’s your move.