The ball swung to the wing and on the catch, Thunder guard Dennis Schröder assumed the triple threat position, ready to shoot, pass or dribble. Same with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and a host of other Thunder perimeter players on Tuesday night in Game 1 against the Houston Rockets.
The difference was that there was no Rockets defender hugged up close to them like normal. Houston defenders hung back, not all the way in the lane, not far enough that the Thunder guards were wide open, but just enough to make OKC’s guards hesitate. In those fractions of seconds, shooting windows vanished due to the length and quickness of Houston’s five-guard lineup. Driving lanes were already packed with traffic, as the Rockets’ approach in Game 1’s 123-108 Thunder loss was to take away what the Thunder does best – get into the middle of the floor.
“There are times where (the Rockets are) off of (our guards) and those guys are gonna have to rise up and shoot,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “When you get caught up in the half court, those guys getting in there against that contact, it's tough to finish. But if you can get the ball ahead of their defense and those guys can get the speed and quickness involved, they'll be better off.”
Typically, Houston plays the math game. Analytically-driven, the Rockets only attempt three-pointers and shots at the rim, hoping to maximize the league-wide statistical trends that show threes, layups – and of course free throws – give the best return on investment. Just look at their shot chart and that’s all you’ll see. Aside from their 52 three-point tries, Houston only attempted three shots outside of 10 feet on Tuesday. With that philosophy on offense, it stands to reason that the Rockets would try to take away threes from the Thunder.
Instead, Houston did the exact opposite, clogging off the paint completely in a soft zone and daring OKC to shoot from three. The Thunder obliged, and to look at a sterile stat sheet, it seemed like OKC got its money’s worth, as Donovan’s club knocked down 13-of-35 shots from deep, good for 37.1 percent.
The opportunity cost, however, loomed large. By freezing on the perimeter with the ball and eventually taking a three-pointer, the Thunder lost the offensive mojo that sustained it throughout the year. With an emphasis on playing with tempo and quickness, the Thunder love to get the floor moving. Cutting quickly off of big men at the high post and using pick and rolls to put opponents in binds usually results in layups or mid-range jumpers. That’s why the Thunder ranked eighth in field goal percentage and first in shooting percentage on two-point jumpers this year.
“To start off the possession we need to bring the ball up a lot faster than we did. We were just jogging down a couple times,” said center Steven Adams, who explained that the Thunder needs to initiate offense with at minimum 18 seconds left on the shot clock. “Against a defense like this one where they're just switching everything, it's kind of hard to get a shot that quick. You have to move them a couple of times before something opens up.”
“We need to flow in our offense, get some really good movement going on, make them make a bunch of mistakes,” Adams continued. “And it’ll help out in the long run too, because it's quite tiring doing it.”
Instead of denying threes, Houston took away the Thunder’s nightly advantage, limiting OKC to just 5-of-11 shooting on non-paint two-point jumpers and only 19-of-38 shooting in the paint. By comparison, the Thunder typically knock down about 11 two-point jumpers per game and in the three meetings against Houston in the regular season, attempted 47 shots in the paint.
“It’s the first team all season we’ve played like that, so it was sort of a feel-out game,” said Paul, who nearly had a triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
One Thunder player who habitually lives in the paint is Gilgeous-Alexander, the second-year guard who was the second-youngest player to lead the team in scoring in OKC history. He fell 10 points short of his season average on Tuesday with just nine points on eight field goal attempts as the Rockets prevented any sort of openings for the slinky guard to slalom through. Schröder struggled to find his shot as well, going 3-for-12 (0-for-5 from three) for 6 points off the bench.
But it’s not about production from individual players in this matchup, but a team-wide commitment to a play-style that will be effective against Houston’s funky outfit. Adams suggested that doing more screening and different types of screening could free up the Thunder’s guards, but mostly it comes down to speed.
“The faster we play and the less that they set up in their defense, everyone's going to be a lot more open, they’ll have a bit more freedom,” said Adams.
What did work for the Thunder was pounding the ball inside with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams on mismatches. Adams, who scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, drew six fouls on Houston while Gallinari drew five more and knocked down all nine of his free throw attempts on his way to tying a career playoff-high with 29 points. Before the game, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni even said that the Thunder forward was a “point guard masquerading as a 6-10 guy.” Either with deep seals against smaller players or back to the basket moves, Gallinari was a tough cover for Houston.
“I was just trying to use the height advantage in the post and just trying to keep moving,” Gallinari explained. “The more you move especially without the ball, the more effective you can be offensively. And that's something that we did pretty well at the beginning of the game, but we didn't sustain it throughout the game.”
By the game’s end, Houston’s starting five had racked up 24 out of 30 possible fouls, so continuing to attack with Adams and Gallinari could seriously hamper Houston’s already short 8-man rotation. The key will be generating those opportunities down low early in possessions, on rim-runs by Adams in transition and on relocations through the middle of the floor.
“We knew their plan was to switch lot,” said Gallinari. “We were pretty effective in the post. But at the same time we need to play Thunder basketball. We need to go up and down the floor and pick up the pace.”
“You want to be able to get those situations through your movement,” said Donovan.
The NBA is a bang-bang league, and the difference of half a second can be what determines an open layup and a jammed-up paint. On Thursday in Game 2, the Thunder will have to bring the speed to Houston.