OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 15: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dunks the ball against the Utah Jazz during Game One of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 15, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Don’t Stagnate, Get Stops and Go – INTEGRIS Game Day Report: OKC at UTA Game 3

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com


Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 9:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

SALT LAKE CITY – There’s a fine line to toe. With the Thunder’s first round series with the Utah Jazz tied at 1-1, it’s imperative for the Thunder to identify where the divide is between strategy that needs to be adjusted versus simply better execution of the current plan as the team embarks on a four-day road trip to face off against the Jazz in Games 3 and 4.

During the playoffs the word “adjustment” gets thrown around relentlessly, hinting that game-changing strategies might be just around the corner if the coaches and players knew where to look. After pouring over hours and hours of film, crunching numbers and through discussions about the game, it’s fairly rare that there’s something that Head Coach Billy Donovan or the Thunder will suddenly stumble upon that could be a completely different strategy.

Much more frequently, it’s about executing the current game plan at a higher level. The Thunder showed that two postseasons ago after falling in blowout fashion to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1, only to come back and win the series in 6 games. Sometimes, the most important thing to do in a playoff series is to show perseverance, while sprinkling in a few tweaks.

“You have to switch some things up, just not to stay stagnant and not being able to be too predictable,” forward Paul George said. “Then you have to do things that wasn’t working as well a little better. It goes hand in hand.”

“It’s all about kind of just understanding the situation that we’re in. In the playoffs, in these types of situations where you win one, you lose one, I’ve seen times where people just panic and start overthinking and things like that,” said forward Carmelo Anthony. “When I go back and look at the game and recap and watch the film, Utah did a great job in Game 2, but I think we beat ourselves by not doing the small things.”

On the defensive end of the floor, the Thunder knows that in Game 3 against the Jazz, it will have to do a better job of defending the paint and closing out on shooters. Crafty playmaking point guard Donovan Mitchell, a rookie phenom, has hit tough shots so far this series but the Thunder believes it can make those looks more difficult all over the floor so that it can rebound and run.

“We want to press up more, be more aggressive defensively. You gotta make it tougher on them. They got a lot of easy shots, a lot of wide open shots. For us, we gotta be better,” said guard Corey Brewer.” “We gotta play faster. But we gotta get stops. If you’re not getting stops you can’t play fast.”

On the other end of the court, the Thunder’s offense will be aided by as much tempo-pushing as possible. Scoring in the lane is no easy task against the Jazz, but the key is getting the ball deep near the hoop to force help to rotate over. The swing-swing passing one step ahead of the defense that results from that is precisely what the Thunder hopes to create every possession.

“You can get the ball to the paint, but it may not get a shot up. But there’s a lot of times those paint-created shots are just as good,” Donovan

Taking contested, challenged shots is a result of what Thunder players described as making the game harder than it needs to be. There’s an understanding that finding the holes in the Utah defense is often better than barreling into it head on. In many instances the Jazz are going to live with either Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors providing a strong contest with length around the rim, and won’t double team. That’s been demonstrated in its defense of Anthony and Russell Westbrook’s post ups.

If those two Thunder scorers aren’t forcing help and then delivering kick-out passes to start Jazz rotations, they’ll be isolated on the block against solid defenders. That’s no problem for players of their caliber, but how they read the defense and execute the shots from there will make a huge difference in the game.

The x’s and o’s often sort themselves out if the Thunder takes the right energy and approach into the game. On the road, in a rowdy Salt Lake City building where the crowd is sitting practically right on top of the court, the Thunder will have its hands full. Leaning on their veteran savvy and experience, the Thunder needs to be as one in those tough moments, talking out every possession and staying connected through the adversity.

“This is a time where we got to come together. More so now than ever, on the road in Utah,” Anthony said. “The guys that’s gonna be us on the bench, us on the court, there’s got to be a communication. That’s gotta be tight. Because any little crack in the armor, it can get tough out there.”

“We’re on another floor. We’re in a hostile environment. We gotta rely on one another moreso than ever,” George added. “Try to block out everything around us and just focus on ourselves out there.”


Watch: Practice Rundown - 4/20


Thunder Notes & Quotes

- In Wednesday’s Game 2, Utah’s Derrick Favors made two three-pointers and Ricky Rubio made 5. During the regular season, Favors only made 14 three-pointers and shot just 22 percent on those jumpers. Rubio was better, 35.5 percent, but has historically not shot the ball well from behind the arc. The Thunder will have to decide whether to continue sagging a bit off of those players in Game 3, or possibly give up something else to get all the way out to contest those jump shots.

“We just have to stay with the schemes, do what coach says,” Brewer said succinctly.
- Many of these Thunder players are getting their first chance to work with Donovan in the postseason, but he’s made a positive impression thus far. Given that he helped lead the Thunder to the 7th game of the Western Conference Finals in his first year as a head coach, Donovan has the experience of what it’s like to battle through tightly contested series, monitoring the balance between structure and freedom for the players.

“(He’s) trusting us to go out there and do the right thing, but also giving us the recipe and the schemes and believing in us to go out there and execute that,” Anthony said.
- The other first experience to happen during this past week came for George and his parents, who sat courtside in Chesapeake Energy Arena for Games 1 and 2. According to George, getting a taste of playoff-level Loud City was quite the treat.

“They loved it. They thought it was loud when they first got here, in their first home game here,” George said of his parents’ reaction. “It was great. That was my first time, those first two games being in this arena with this atmosphere, so we kind of enjoyed that together.”

- From Shootaround: A major point of emphasis in the game tonight for the Thunder is closing out quarters better. In Game 2, the Jazz got quick, buzzer-beating baskets to finish the first and third quarters. Those four points ended up being massive in the final score of the game, as was Utah's 7-2 burst to end the third quarter. Finishing out those final minutes heading into breaks will be crucial on the road.

"We try not to have the game come down to the last minute to secure a win," George said. "We gotta do a better job when we were up of not allowing that game to come down to the final minute and the being down after we played desperation ball to try to secure it and get back into it. It just comes down to, over the course of the game, taking care of what we can take care of so we’re not in that position."

- From Shootaround: Another wrinkle to look for tonight with the Thunder is Jerami Grant's minutes at the center position, particularly when he's matched up against Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors. Both are tall, physical rim protectors, but Grant has demonstrated the quickness, ballhandling ability and length to finish over and around the Jazz big men camped in the lane. Scoring at the rim is no easy task against Utah, so any buckets Grant can generate off the bounce over Jazz bigs could be huge for the Thunder.

"Jerami at times, when he’s had space, whether it’s been against either frontcourt guys and he’s able to put the ball on the floor, he’s created pretty well," said Donovan. "But him putting the ball on the floor, not only against Utah, but it’s been good for Jerami his whole career. I think it’s a strength of his."

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