A playoff series is like a chess match. In the early stages, the opposing players and coaches are trying to feel the other out, testing the limits and patience of their opponent while trying to settle into their playing style. In Game 1, the Rockets certainly got the better of the opening portion of the chess match.
Based on last year’s playoff run, we know Thunder head coach Billy Donovan is adept at making the kind of adjustments necessary in a playoff game. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, whose victory Sunday was his first in the playoffs since 2008, will have to contend with Donovan’s adjustments and make some of his own.
For my money, the balance of the series lies in the coaching. Here are three adjustments Billy Donovan could make to shift the balance of this series:
Minimize Enes Kanter’s playing time
Donovan is a notorious tinkerer. He did it all throughout the regular season, even in the final games. It’s a far cry from the days of Scotty Brooks, whose lineups may as well have been etched into the stone directly below the 10th commandment.
The first adjustment? Minimizing Enes Kanter’s playing time. Taking him out of the game entirely would mean losing his scoring, his offensive rebounding, and his playmaking ability that he’s developed with the second unit. His skillset is still valuable, but not as much as it would be against, say, the Spurs.
Like we saw in the Western Conference Finals last season, Billy Donovan is a huge proponent on switching on screens. While it’s a viable strategy that I love — being able to throw multiple, able-bodied defenders at a team’s best scorers is a good way to take them out of their rhythm — it’s not working against Houston.
Because of the Rockets’ scheme, which involves ball screens by the handful each time down the court, Enes Kanter found himself one-on-one with James Harden several times, a nightmare for a player like Kanter.
Predictably, Harden held Kanter over the spit and roasted him all night long in the pick-and-roll. It was a pick your poison situation for Kanter: sell out for the three? Harden will drive right past you. Hang back, predicting a drive? He’ll launch it from deep. Harden shot just 3-of-11 from deep. Something tells me that’s about the worst shooting we’ll see from him in this series.
And I haven’t even mentioned Harden’s ability in isolation yet.
The solution? It’s not an easy one — it never is against an all-world player like James Harden — but trimming Kanter’s minutes and handing them to the likes of Jerami Grant and Taj Gibson is key. They’re more versatile, nimble, and physical than Kanter on defense by a country mile.
It’s not just in the pick-and-roll, though. What happens, as in this clip, is that the Rockets force a switch, leaving Semaj Christon to wrestle with Nene while Kanter languishes on Harden:
The result is predictable: Kanter gets embarrassed. This time, though, it’s not entirely his fault. There was no weak-side help whatsoever because Kanter was playing center. If Jerami Grant or Andre Roberson had rotated to help, they would have left capable three-point shooters open. Then what’s the issue here? It’s the lineup.
Simply put: Kanter can not be utilized as he was in Game 1. It fundamentally hamstrings the Thunder’s defense.
If the Thunder are going to continue to switch big men on the pick-and-roll (which I think is the right move), then those big men are going to need to show a bit more versatility on defense, even if that means sacrificing some on the offensive end. Besides: nothing kills your offensive rhythm more than your own defensive lapses.
Don’t fall in love with the three
While the Rockets and, to a greater degree, the Warriors are setting trends in play style (i.e. shooting a metric ton of threes and playing very small lineups), the Thunder have continued to build the traditional way. Particularly, Sam Presti is a huge fan of the big, bruising defensive anchor. If he can’t have a two-way player, Presti would rather employ the one who excels defensively.
As such, the Thunder simply aren’t equipped to out-shoot a team whose primary M.O. is to shoot as much as possible — even at the expense of efficiency.
So why would they try to do so?
Part of the problem is, especially in the case of Andre Roberson, Thunder players have been instructed to take the open three.
In Game 1, the Thunder barely out-shot the Rockets, hitting 9-of-29 (31%) to Houston’s 10-of-33 (30.3%). Subtract Westbrook and Oladipo’s combined 3-of-17 from deep shooting, and it’s a fantastic shooting game.
I’m not saying that Westbrook and Oladipo need to abandon the three-ball entirely — they just need to settle down. A rushed three is a waste of a possession for the Thunder, and against a prolific offensive team, wasted possessions can not be afforded.
It’s also about making the Rockets expend more energy on defense. If they have to contend with the ball swinging around the perimeter on the defensive end, then they have less mental and physical energy to establish their offense. It goes both ways.
The energy was certainly present on offense. It’s just that energy’s partner-in-crime, focus, was completely absent. More conscientious shot selection will be vital for the Thunder moving forward.
Time for Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo to show up
This is the most abstract of adjustments for Donovan — how do you get a player to simply play their game? — but it’s arguably the most crucial point for the Thunder to get back in this series.
Both played abysmally in Game 1. In his playoff debut, Victor Oladipo scored six points on 1-of-12 shooting, notching four rebounds and three assists.
Steven Adams scored six, pulling down five boards. Adams attempted only six shots on the night.
So how can Billy Donovan scheme them into the game?
With Oladipo, it might simply be a case of first game jitters. For him, it may be less of an adjustment of game plan and more of a mental adjustment. Still, I can’t help but wonder if he’d be more effective as a sort-of sixth man. He’d generally play the same amount of minutes, but this way, he can find his groove in the middle periods against Houston’s second team. I’m not thrilled about the idea of starting, say, Alex Abrines in his place, but it is an interesting thought.
Adams, whose bone-chattering screen against Patrick Beverley was probably the play of the game, did little else all night. The Thunder should be killing Houston the boards, but they didn’t, and a lot of that blame falls at Adams’ feet.
“The turning point was not an exact moment, but just our turnovers and offensive rebounds and second-chance points was what really killed us,” Adams said after the game at the Toyota Center.
Second-chance points are where Adams’ bread is buttered. Houston doubled OKC’s mark of seven offensive boards and out-rebounded OKC by 14 on the night. For Adams to be effective, he’s going to have to clean up the mess down low.
The Adams-Westbrook pick-and-roll should be deadly, but because of the Thunder’s diminished spacing this season, it’s been difficult for Adams to find room to navigate in the lane. It’s a bit of push and pull: if the Thunder can knock down open shots, the lane will open up. If Adams is cleaning up easy buckets inside, the shooters will have better looks. When the Thunder at their best, Westbrook, Oladipo, and Adams are playing off of each other’s strengths.
For this reason, the effectiveness of Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams is the biggest and most important of the factors that could tilt this series. Westbrook can’t do it all himself, after all.