How many times this season have the Thunder pulled off a miraculous comeback? Just in the final weeks of the season alone there were three that stood out above the rest, when Russell Westbrook helped lead his team from late deficits against the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets.
So can the Thunder do it again, this time trailing 3-1 in a playoff series rather than on the scoreboard? Why not?
Thunder Talk: Russell Westbrook
As the Thunder got together for a quick practice session before shipping off to Houston to play Game 5 of its first round series against the Rockets, the team rallied, got in some work and ensured that everyone was confident in their chances to get one on the road to force a Game 6 back in OKC.
“The boys are still as positive as you can be after a loss and are looking to get better,” center Steven Adams said.
In order to make it happen, however, the Thunder has to maintain its focus, discipline and basketball intelligence for all 48 minutes. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club has burst out of the gates of each game in this series with confidence, poise and precision. As the game has worn on, however, there’s been slippage.
“It’s the stamina,” Adams observed. “It’s the mental ones. Locking in on the gameplan. All the little things that make them miss and make it tough for them. We have to maintain those things.”
Thunder Talk: Steven Adams
Donovan noted one specific area where that inconsistency showed itself in Game 4, in a quite remarkable way. After protecting the rim at an incredible level for the first 24 minutes, the Thunder didn’t get the job done over the final two quarters.
“There was a reason we had 14 blocked shots in the first half. We did a really good job of stepping up and challenging shots at the rim,” Donovan said. “When you do that, there are going to be guys along the baseline and that’s where you have to rotate down. In the second half we didn’t have any blocked shots and a lot of it was dump down passes where we have to make some rotations out of that.”
– Upon analysis of Game 4, that last point made by Donovan was the ultimate explanation for the perfect 12-for-12, 28-point night that Rockets reserve center Nene compiled on Sunday. Through difficult choices that arise in pick-and-roll defense, the Thunder surrendered too many offensive rebounds and simple catch and finish shots inside of two feet for Nene. In Game 5, the Thunder has to be tighter on its rotations and crash down from the wings to deflect those passes while still having the ability to fly back out to shooters.
Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan
- “The ones we have to eliminate are some of those dump-down passes,” Donovan said. “Those are the ones that have been more troublesome for us.”
- “The tough thing is they have so many perimeter players attacking. Obviously our job as a big is to shut it off and help out,” Adams described. “But you have to do two. You have to try to play in between and make good reads in terms of if it’s an aggressive drive or if he’s balanced and looking to dish.”
– To negate some of those problems in pick-and-roll coverages, the Thunder has employed a strategy of switching everything along the perimeter late in the shot clock. Based on the exact situation, Thunder defenders have been switching out onto Rockets ball-handlers when there are around six seconds or less on the shot clock in order to prevent easy drives to the rim or chances to manipulate the transfer of defense between the Thunder’s guards and bigs.
- “It eliminates putting two on the ball. Sometimes when there’s two on the ball, you’re giving the ball-handler a couple options,” Donovan explained. “Late sometimes, even if you have a big guy on somebody, it becomes more challenging in terms of time and space that a guy can make a play.”
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– Houston has employed a similar strategy with Westbrook at times, being willing to put forwards and centers like Nene and Trevor Ariza on the Thunder point guard. Late in games however, in crunch time, Houston has not been switching, but encouraging the second defender in any pick-and-roll to blitz Westbrook out on the perimeter. In an effort to clog up Westbrook’s airspace and ability to make a play, Houston has denied driving and passing lanes. To negate that, the Thunder has to have all five players engaged offensively to recognize the situation and be in the right position to move the ball and make the right play.
- “They were very aggressive with Russell in pick and roll coverage,” Donovan noted. “We have to get to different spots on the floor quicker and sooner. We have to recognize when they’re sending two people at him.”
- “Sometimes they switch up coverages. You kind of have to see it before it comes,” Westbrook added. “That’s tough too because obviously they know what they’re doing. Sometimes they blitz and sometimes they don’t so you kind of just have to read it.”