Billy Donovan and his squad have their work cut out for them. Although a 3-1 lead can’t be described as insurmountable — we saw it happen twice in the playoffs last year, all memes aside — considering that two of the three possible remaining games are in Houston, and that the Thunder have been wildly ineffective in closing games against the Rockets, the outlook isn’t great.
So what can the Thunder do to try to bring the series back to Oklahoma City?
Stop Fouling Jump Shooters
On the surface, this seems relatively simple, right? You’re taught that from day one on any high level of basketball: don’t. Foul. Jump. Shooters. A hard foul on the interior can be considered smart if the guy’s a poor free throw shooter. Fouling James Harden or Lou Williams on the perimeter is a different story.
The blame for this, in my opinion, doesn’t lay squarely on the Thunder. It’s a tough call to make for the refs. They certainly can be faulted for fighting too hard through screens and flailing toward the shooter, though.
“We’re getting over the screen with our arms out of the shooter,” Adams said about the phenomenon. “Then that one time, where the mental fatigue comes in, our hands just lead because we need to try to get over. Hands lead, and then that’s when they get the shots.
However, the Rockets make it difficult on the referees. It could be argued (and has been by Billy Donovan) that the shooting motion required to draw the three-point foul isn’t actually a natural shooting motion at all. Remember: James Harden and Lou Williams lead the league in three-point fouls by a pretty wide margin. It’s a skill, and they put the onus on the refs to make the call.
There’s little the Thunder can do to change the refereeing, but they must show more discipline when they work through screens.
The Andre Roberson Problem
Game 4 turned when Mike D’Antoni employed the Hack-a-Shaq strategy — or, if you will, Slay-a-‘Dre. As you can probably ascertain, it’s mostly mental with Roberson — he was practically having a panic attack on his way to 2-of-12 shooting.
His defense is valuable and a huge reason why the Thunder have remained close in the series, despite the 3-1 tally. So what do you do about ‘Dre?
In my opinion, you simply can’t play him late in a close game except for specialized circumstances. D’Antoni was forcing Donovan’s hand. Want to keep him in the game? Fine. But we’re going to foul him mercilessly.
Roberson can be in the game late if the Thunder have a timeout to sub him out, but that’s about it. Otherwise they risk completely unraveling, like they did Sunday afternoon.
For the series, Nene has averaged 13.5 points per game in just 21 minutes per game. He’s shooting a ridiculously efficient 92% through four games.
That’s got to stop.
The solution? Physicality.
Nene relies on his strength inside to generate a large amount of his buckets. He counts on taking the contact and powering through it. The problem with that? Thunder bigs have been soft on Nene so far. Many times, because of Houston’s screen-heavy scheme and the Thunder’s propensity to switch every time, Nene will get a favorable matchup, like Andre Roberson.
Free throws, though, are his kryptonite: Nene has shot 60% on the season, and just 50% for the series.
When Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, or whichever big happens to be guarding him, they can’t let him get an easy shot without fouling. If a guard gets switched out on him, then a big needs to rotate and help so he can’t get an easy look.
Another solution? Hack-a-Nene. The Rockets have a bevy of bigs, not many of whom can shoot free throws very well. Clint Capela is a dreadful shooter at 53% on the year. Ryan Anderson is effective from the line, but his role is more of a stretch three. He’s not in there to muck it up inside.
Don’t be surprised if Billy Donovan flips that strategy on Mike D’Antoni tonight.