There’s no easy playoff opponent because every team presents a different set of challenges and what makes a team unique is also what makes them great. That’s exactly what the Oklahoma City Thunder is coming up against in this First Round series against the Houston Rockets.
42.6 percent of the Rockets’ field goal attempts come from behind the 3-point line, far and away the highest percentage in the league. It’s a clear indication of their interest in playing the law-of-large-numbers game of percentages from behind the arc. At the same time, however, the Rockets shot 64.6 percent inside the restricted area, third best in the NBA.
That outside-inside attack can be brutal to defend, and it’s why the Thunder is equally as worried about the efficiency with which the Rockets can score inside as it is with the perimeter 3-point threat.
“What happens sometimes is that people talk about the 3-point line all the time and deservedly so,” Donovan said. “The thing that no one talks about is how many points they get in the deep paint and the percentage they’re shooting in the deep paint.”
“When they’re not getting those threes, they’re getting layups, in essence. Really deep post catches, stuff at the rim and dunks. They’re a challenge. The reason why they’re such a good offensive team in my opinion is because they’re not one dimensional from the 3-point line. The 3-point line gets a lot of attention. That’s not all that they do. They do a lot of things they’re effective in.”
– In the four regular season matchups between the Thunder and the Rockets, Andre Roberson spent most of his time defending James Harden, one of the league’s most dynamic guards. A scorer and distributor, Harden racked up 22 triple-doubles during the regular season. Roberson’s combination of length, size, quickness and familiarity with Harden’s game could be a major asset in this series. He has a great memory of the ways Harden likes to manufacture points by drawing fouls, but will also be scouring the tape to make sure he’s fully prepared for everything Houston will throw his way.
- “I definitely go back and look at the games, but I have a mental book of what worked and what didn’t work,” Roberson said. “You have to be disciplined. He keeps you on your toes.”
– Another perimeter player that will likely be cross-matched onto Harden at some point in the series is the physical, rangy Victor Oladipo. The fourth-year point guard isn’t quite as tall as Roberson, but he’s muscular and tough, providing a different look along the wing. After three seasons in Orlando, Oladipo is making his playoff debut, and is ready to rise to the occasion with his other young teammates.
- “It’s my first postseason so I’m like a kid at a candy store,” Oladipo said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there and competing with my teammates.”
– At practice before the Thunder left for Houston, Donovan was asked about what 2017 Billy Donovan realizes now that perhaps 2016 Billy Donovan didn’t know yet about the NBA playoffs. Last season was Donovan’s first foray into the postseason, so after three hard-fought series, Donovan enters this playoff run with a few takeaways, including one simply about how much perseverance must take place during the course of a series.
- “A seven game series is a long series. Two weeks in the playoffs is a long time,” Donovan said dryly. “You don’t realize that.”
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The Extra Pass: More Notes From Practice
– One of the biggest factors in the series will be how the Thunder is able to deploy its big men to make an impact. For the most part, the Rockets will play with just one traditional big man on the floor as a roller to the rim. Clint Capela will likely be the starter, with Nene coming off the bench. Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, Enes Kanter and Domas Sabonis have been factors for the Thunder all season long, and their ability to stay on the floor against a small-ball Houston style could be a game-changer.
“It’s staying locked in and being aware, making good reads and determining whether you help 100 percent or just stab at him,” Adams listed. “Also build-outs to the three-point line are going to be huge. Meeting them vertical at the rim and trying not to foul them.”
“Just stay solid, stick to the game plan and it’ll work out,” Adams continued.
– If the Thunder does opt to go small, it has shown throughout the season that it has the ability to do so. Gibson has played some at the center position, while Jerami Grant has played the power forward role at times for the Thunder. If the Thunder needs an extra-long defender on Harden, someone to match up and contest shots by Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza or someone to block shots, Grant might be just the man to do it.
“Jerami is very versatile. He can play the three, four and the five. He can do a lot of different things,” Donovan reviewed. “If we need to look at that, it could be a possibility. He’s a shot blocker at the basket defensively. He has a lot of length. He continues to get better on the offensive end of the floor. He could play a variety of different positions in the series.”
– As many around Oklahoma City know, rotations can sometimes get shortened in the NBA playoffs. For many of the young Thunder players like Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott, that’s something they haven’t experienced much yet. It remains to be seen how deep the Thunder will go in their rotation, but Donovan certainly has plenty of options at his disposal. One of the biggest keys for Abrines in particular to stay on the floor will be the way his defense and physical stature has progressed through the season.
“He moves his feet very well,” Donovan said. “He’s gotten better being able to physically hold his ground and have a presence between his man and the basket.”