Maintaining What Worked in Game 1 vs. Utah

Paul George fought around screens, Steven Adams showed a wide presence in the lane and Corey Brewer darted to and fro, and suddenly, the Utah Jazz were left with little time on the shot clock and few options.

That’s why in the Thunder’s 116-108 victory in Game 1 on Sunday evening at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s defense was able to force Jazz point guard and featured distributor Ricky Rubio into 18 field goal attempts, including 10 in the midrange.

Sure, there were a lot of aspects of Game 1 on Sunday evening that the Thunder can control, and can do a better job with, like turnovers and transition defense. There were also factors like shot making that the Thunder was fortunate to have go its way, but there even more areas where Donovan’s group executed crisply on its game plan, and that helped engineer the right start to the series. Forcing Jazz playmakers like Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles into tough jumpers off the dribble instead of drives for passes is a goal for the Thunder defense.

“There were times where we did a good job, where we made them take some difficult shots,” Donovan said at practice on Monday. “There were times they made some difficult shots, and then there were some times where I thought we had some breakdowns and probably overall needed to do a better job.”

“All that comes down to is stopping them from getting middle and then just straight line drives to the rim,” Adams said. “The less rotations we can make, the better. That obviously comes with their swing, swing, what they really want to do.”

Sunday night’s contest was likely the most physical one of all the weekend’s playoff matchups, with heavyweights Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert crashing against one another under the rim for 48 minutes. On the perimeter, George and Carmelo Anthony fought through grabs and pulls and body bumps to get to spots. Shots went down, and that’s obviously better than the alternative, but the Thunder needs to maintain their offensive force and verve in Game 2.

“You have to be sharp with your passing. You have to screen. You have to execute. You have to cut hard, timing of cuts, spacing,” Donovan explained. “All those things are major, major factors.”

One way it can free up more space for clean looks is to manipulate Gobert and Utah’s interior defense. This Jazz group was the best in the league defensively when healthy, so that’s much easier said than done, though the Thunder managed it in the fourth quarter. After George completed his three-point barrage that drew an instant double team, Westbrook carved out space on drives, baited Gobert into committing away from the rim and had openings for Adams and Jerami Grant on the back side.

“We want to keep him engaged as far as not being able to change shots, not being effective down in the paint blocking shots,” Anthony said. “We did a great job of making shots and keeping him away from being effective from blocking or altering shots.”

The Thunder managed just 32 points in the paint on Sunday, so as a team there will need to be an emphasis on generating high quality shots when possible as a result of moving the Jazz defense.

“Early in the game, you probably noticed we were kicking to three a lot, whether we shot the shot or not,” Adams explained. “And then late in the game, they didn’t pull off. There was no help on that one, so we managed to get it done”

Thunder Notes & Quotes

- A huge factor in Game 1, and all series, will be rebounding. On Sunday the Thunder out-rebounded the Jazz by 4, a respectable if not spectacular number. Those extra opportunities resulted in a 19-10 edge in second chance points, which when looking at the scoreboard seems to indicate a pretty huge difference in the final outcome. With the way Gobert eats up space and quickly puts the ball back in, Jazz forwards Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder muscle up and guards like Mitchell and Rubio dart to loose balls, the Thunder needs to be vigilant on the glass.

  • “If you can control the boards, attack the boards you give yourself an opportunity to get out in transition and speed the game up a little bit,” Anthony said. “When you're not getting stops or offensive rebounds or scoring, then the game becomes slower and that's not something we want to do.”

- One of the major bright spots for the Thunder on Sunday, and a development that needs to hold firm, was the play of Anthony on the defensive end and around the rim. After an early adjustment to drop the veteran forward into coverage on pick and rolls, Anthony was able to use his quickness and sleight of hand to make 3 steals and 2 blocks to go with 7 rebounds. On many occasions, Anthony was the last line of defense between the Jazz and a potential layup or a put back, and he held firm with toughness and veteran guile.

  • “First call to action would be trying to stop the ball, kind of just reading the play and understanding personnel at the same time, what guys like to do and what they don't like to do, and using my instincts a lot of the time out there,” Anthony said. “Whether it's defensively or offensively, you going to have to make a play for yourself or for somebody else. For the sake of the team it's all about being in the right spots, right position and using your instincts.”
  • “I am proud of Mel,” said point guard Raymond Felton, a longtime friend and time-and-again teammate of Anthony’s over the years. “We know what he can do offensively. So, (it’s) just him getting his hands on the ball and staying in front of the guys and doing the things that we need him to do out there.”