Nick Gallo

Back Against the Wall, Thunder Ready to Make a Stand

Date: August 31, 2020

Tip-Off Time: 8 p.m. CT

Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma

Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

Series: 3-2 Houston

Thunder Status

A win on Monday night won’t guarantee the Thunder anything other than a chance to play again on Wednesday, but in a fight for playoff life, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club won’t be looking beyond Game 6. All year long the Thunder has played well with its back against the wall. It hasn’t lost three-straight games since November 22 and had 17 wins when trailing heading into the fourth quarter during the regular season, tied for the most in NBA history.

With that history of coming through when the pressure is on, the Thunder will need to call up those reserves of will power and faith again in order to give itself a chance to play a Game 7.

“We just got to go out there tomorrow and play our hearts out, leave everything on the floor, and try to win the game,” said point guard Dennis Schröder at practice on Sunday. “We’ve been very resilient. We’re all believers in this locker room. We all believe if you put the work in it's gonna show so it's going be the same thing tomorrow.”

Opponent Breakdown

The Rockets are sitting back in a very soft man-to-man defense, switching every screening action and trying to hold up the Thunder’s pace-and-space offense. Against a team that has athleticism, quickness and physicality at all five positions, the Thunder’s ability to generate pick-and-pop jumpers for Danilo Gallinari, attacking layups or drive-and-dish threes has been mitigated.

Donovan has tried posting up Adams and Gallinari but slowing down the tempo in those situations has actually played into Houston’s style and the Rockets’ low-center-of-gravity, slapping and digging post defense. When the Thunder has been at its best against Houston, mostly in Games 3 and 4, it has been when it has played with speed and quickness, getting up the floor and into offense before Houston can get set. In those Game 3 and 4 wins, the Thunder took more shots in the first 6 seconds of the shot clock than it has over the rest of the games in the series and will need to do so again in Game 6.

“We just gotta play fast, play with speed, share the ball, attack the basket and make the right decisions,” said Schröder, who scored 19 points in 21 minutes before a third quarter collision with PJ Tucker resulted in both he and Tucker getting ejected from Game 5.

Matchup Focus

One of the ways that Houston has tried to bog down the Thunder’s offense is by helping far off of players who either don’t take three-pointers or don’t shoot them at a super high rate, while hugging up tightly to the Thunder’s best shooters. For example, the Rockets have not strayed from Gallinari at all in the series, while it has shaded down towards the lane when guarding Lu Dort, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Terrance Ferguson. In the past, what Donovan has done in those situations is use those players as screeners to engage their defender and get the floor moving.

That strategy was successful with Andre Roberson back in the 2016 playoffs, and on one play in Game 5, Schröder found Dort on a roll to the rim where the rookie finished with the right hand.

Stat to Watch

The Rockets 3-point shooting is always a focal point, because they’re going to launch around 50 no matter how the Thunder defends. The difference will be how contested the Thunder makes those shots and whether they come from the corners or above the break.

Shots from deep also matter for the Thunder on the other end of the floor, as its record during the regular season and playoffs this year has correlated to how many threes it has taken. OKC is 6-13 when attempting 35-or-more threes and 40-18 when attempting 35 or fewer. Some of that difference is muddied by the fact that teams that are behind often shoot more threes to try to get back into the game, but it can also be a sign of the health of the Thunder offense. Donovan’s squad has made its living at the free-throw line, at the rim and in the midrange all season and a crisp offense that is constantly moving will generate more of those shots, along with some catch-and-shoot threes as opposed to stand-still or step-back three-pointers.

“We've got to space the floor the right way, all five guys have got to be in the right spacing,” Schröder said. “Everybody’s got to create open driving lanes. Everybody’s got to be aggressive as well. I know they’re shifting a lot but we’ve got to move the ball and then just attack.”

“We have to do everything with more force,” Schröder continued.

Thunder Trend

So far in this series, the Thunder has rebounded 81.6 percent of Houston’s missed shots, the second-best defensive rebounding rate in the playoffs so far. While that’s fantastic, the offensive rebounds that the Thunder has given up have been costly, with many resulting in second-chance threes, ones that players like Harden can step right into for back-breaking buckets.

Leading the rebounding charge for the Thunder has been Steven Adams, who has racked up a playoff career-best 11.6 rebounds per game to go with 11.0 points. After his 10th career playoff double-double in Game 5, Adams is one of 12 NBA players averaging a double-double during the playoffs.

“I said from the beginning of the series that Steven was an important piece to our team, just because he puts pressure in the basket, he offensive rebounds and they have to account for him if he's rolling to the rim,” Donovan said. “Even on switches where they're switching with their guards on to him, they have to pull in and give some help.”


“You can’t go by somebody else's expectations. I still remember my first day in OKC and I remember our first couple practices and how straight-forward we’ve been with each other since day one. And for us, it’s about taking it one day at a time. We’ve got a great group. We’re going back home, essentially, for Game 6 and we’re going to control what we can control: our effort, our energy, how we play.” – Chris Paul


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