OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trailblazers provide one of the more intriguing first round matchups in the postseason. Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. Paul George and C.J. McCollum. An aggressive defense against a quick-draw offense.
With plenty of stars on both sides, the exercise of identifying the x-factor in a series becomes important. A guy who’s strong performance will more than likely lead to a victory. That man for the Oklahoma City: Terrance Ferguson.
Believe it or not, the Thunder’s playoff hopes for the first round — and a possible run deeper in the postseason — hinge around the aggression, defense and shooting of Ferguson.
Ferguson started the season 1-14 from three in the first six games of the year. Then he was fraught with inconsistency — 4-for-9 from three against Houston and 0-for-5 two nights later in Dallas. Overall, Ferguson was contributing next to nothing offensively while his defense was average. His shooting splits were 36/26/75. The Thunder were 13-7 in this stretch.
Then December started and Ferguson became more aggressive. With his aggression came more confidence.
From December 1st to February 22nd, the Thunder’s first game after the All-Star break before the wheels fell off (more on that later), Oklahoma City played 37 games. OKC went 24-13 thanks in large part to — yes, MVP-caliber Paul George — to Ferguson’s shooting development.
Ferguson missed two of those 37 games but rarely missed from deep. His splits skyrocketed to 46/43/64. Earlier on Ferguson was not only shooting poorly but rarely shooting at all (four shots from the floor and just a shade under three three-pointers per game). That was not the case anymore. Ferguson was letting them fly.
Seven shots from the floor and four shots from three, again, on 43 percent shooting!
“It’s important,” Billy Donovan said of Ferguson’s ability to stretch the floor on April 5th. “I think sometimes he hasn’t got the same level of opportunities, I think some of that is attributed to the opponents deciding to help-defend on to him. He’s a guy who has to be accounted for.”
Unfortunately for Ferguson, he would hit a wall, along with the rest of his team. From February 23rd to March 31st, OKC went 6-13. Ferguson would see a dip in his performance significantly. 35 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three. To his credit and possibly to the detriment of the Thunder offense, his attempts were still over four threes a game.
Oklahoma City’s final five games — all wins — saw Ferguson return as an offensive weapon. 44 percent from three on five attempts and 11 points per game overall.
The samples sizes aren’t consistent — 20 games, 37 games, 19 games and five games — but they do begin to tell the story of Ferguson’s importance to the Thunder. When he is aggressive and hitting north of 38 percent of his shots from deep, Oklahoma City’s offense can be a juggernaut, assuming Westbrook and George do their thing.
Matchup with Portland
Against Portland, Oklahoma City’s young swing man focus will be on defense. His scoring is still important but Ferguson’s primary responsibility is continuing his magnum opus defense of C.J. McCollum.
In the four games against OKC, McCollum was matched up against Ferguson more than any other Thunder player (more than 50 percent of all possessions). According to NBA.com, McCollum only accounted for 31 points against Ferguson on 12-of-29 shooting and 7-of-12 from deep.
A so-so output for sure considering four games. But before diving into the numbers more there are a few rules to remember:
- McCollum is a good player and is able to get hot and score even against great defensive technique.
- Officiating is much different in the postseason, which could be a good/bad thing for Ferguson
McCollum’s best game against Oklahoma City came in the second matchup on January 22nd when McCollum scored 31 points and knocked down seven threes. Ferguson was responsible for giving up 21 points and five of those made threes. Rule number one could apply here; McCollum got hot and was feeling it — specifically in the third quarter. But a key factor in those made baskets was the fact that Jusuf Nurkic — who ranks third in the NBA in screen assists at 11.8 points per game — set the screen on Ferguson on four of the five made threes McCollum hit.
With no Nurkic moving forward — and only Enes Kanter, Meyers Leonard, Zach Collins or Mo Harkless putting out less than half of the screen numbers Nurkic can — McCollum may not be able to enjoy as much open space as he did in the four regular season matchups. This favors Ferguson. Portland will still set screens and free McCollum up, yes, but it is unwise to understate Nurkic’s importance to their perimeter offense.
If rule number one truly applied to McCollum’s 31 point performance against OKC, wiping that away from the four games brings McCollum’s already pedestrian output vs. Ferguson to the basement. Ferguson allowed two points in the first game, two points in the third game and 12 points in the final matchup to McCollum.
When compared to McCollum’s other opponents they played three/four times this year (Northwest Divisional opponents and the other Western teams), Oklahoma City’s — and specifically Ferguson’s — defense of McCollum becomes more impressive.
“Obviously they’re a good team,” McCollum told Blazers.com’s Casey Holdahl. “They bring a lot of different dimensions, but I like our chances and I like my chances every night.”
Should he like his chances? With no Nurkic moving forward and Ferguson’s defense of him with Nurkic screening for him all season, this favors OKC.
As great as Ferguson has played in this five-game winning streak, he is still inconsistent. Even when he has been an offensive threat, there has been a trade-off.
During Ferguson’s 43 percent-from-three stretch, he averaged 3.5 fouls. At times it became routine for Ferguson to leave the first quarter early with two fouls. He has fouled out three times — one in the January 4th win against Portland — and has picked up five fouls 10 times. His aggression can lead to unwise fouling.
“You have to be really mindful of keeping your hands back,” Donovan said of Ferguson’s fouling trouble back in March. “A lot of his fouls are when he is overzealous or when he gets caught in tight spaces when there’s two players coming together on screening action whether it is a pick-and-roll or just a normal screen, there are times when he uses his hands to get free.”
This is where rule number two could help Ferguson. He should flourish defensively if he is allowed to play more aggressive when fighting through the now-much weaker screen action from the Blazers. Considering his inconsistency, it is still a big if.
“He gives incredible effort,” Donovan continued. “He really works hard. I feel bad for him at times because they are close calls and can go either way, but it doesn’t deter him.”
If Ferguson can continue his strong effort against McCollum and neutralize him, the Thunder are on their way to a first round upset. His aggression on the offensive end will help space the floor for Westbrook and George to do what they do best. If OKC sees the second round, Ferguson will be a large part.