- The Oklahoma City Thunder are trailing the Utah Jazz 3-1 in the playoffs and are on the brink of elimination.
- The Thunder were viewed as a postseason threat, but have played poorly in the playoffs, struggling with basics against a highly efficient Jazz team.
- The Thunder have massive offseason questions to answer if they lose in the first round of the playoffs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be built for moments like these NBA playoffs, but are instead falling short on the biggest stage.
After a 113-96 loss to the Utah Jazz in Game 4 on Monday, the Thunder are now trailing 3-1 in the series and on the verge of elimination in the first round of the postseason.
This, of course, is not what the Thunder had in mind when they traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, stacking an explosive super-team roster with hopes of contending with the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder struggled and underwhelmed at times in the regular season, but many though – including the Thunder – that they could turn it on for the playoffs.
However, through four games, the Thunder have been bested by a Jazz team that looks like the polar opposite on paper. If not for the breakout of rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, they’d perhaps be a starless team. They’re composed of strong, two-way players who fill roles, execute, and often exceed expectations under head coach Quin Snyder, a strong candidate for Coach of the Year.
There haven’t been any magic matchups or adjustments or tricky game plans that have titled the series in the Jazz’s favor. Instead, they’re merely beating the Thunder in practical ways. In some cases, the Thunder are beating themselves.
Much in the same way the Golden State Warriors have attacked the Cleveland Cavaliers’ foundational flaw in past NBA Finals, the Jazz have made it their mission to hunt out the Thunder’s – Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, never a strong defender, to begin with, is a year older and a step slower, and the Jazz have often involved his man in pick-and-rolls so they can attack him.
The Thunder’s defensive rotations have been a mess. Below, Anthony didn’t fully rotate over to deny Rudy Gobert’s roll to the rim. George attempted to defend in space but didn’t commit in any direction, including stopping Gobert. If Ricky Rubio wanted to go elsewhere, Jae Crowder or Joe Ingles could have been open for three-pointers.
There are reasons teams base entire offenses around the pick-and-roll – it’s hard to defend and puts opponents in difficult positions. But the Thunder aren’t exactly facing the Warriors’ pick-and-roll attack, either. It’s not easy to stop, but it’s relatively basic basketball.
The Thunder could perhaps better position themselves by going under picks or having the big man defending the screen drop further back. According to Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript, head coach Billy Donovan has only insisted that the team is better off playing more aggressively against the pick-and-roll.
The problems go beyond Anthony, however. Russell Westbrook declared after Rubio’s Game 3 triple-double that he would “shut that s— down,” but that missed the more significant point on what’s been plaguing the Thunder.
At times, it can be challenging to diagnose all that goes wrong in a possession. Below, Westbrook didn’t stay in front of Rubio, Anthony didn’t block Rubio’s drive, Adams didn’t help off Gobert (a non-shooter), George helped way too far off of Ingles (a great shooter). All in all, it’s a recipe for disaster against a Jazz team that is executing efficiently.
The transition defense hasn’t been better, either. In the play below, George took an unnecessary gamble on a steal, and then didn’t communicate any switch. Anthony covered a corner with nobody in it. Jerami Grant covered Derrick Favors and then never stepped up to contest the shot.
Compounding the problems have been the Thunder’s offense, particularly the shooting woes of the Big 3. After an explosive Game 1, George has shot just 38% from the field and 31% from three. Anthony is shooting 37% and 23% from three. Westbrook is shooting 36%, 21% from three.
Gobert’s defense in the middle has caused problems for the Thunder, particularly Westbrook, whose game relies so heavily on relentless rim attacks.
The above is an open layup, but Gobert’s presence forced Westbrook to take off earlier than usual. After having his layup attempt swatted by Gobert earlier in the first quarter, Westbrook seemed wary as he put the ball up to the glass.
While the Thunder’s shot profile for the series still looks reasonably efficient – a majority of shots have come from in the paint and above-the-break threes – their lack of ball movement and propensity of their star players to take hurried “home run” shots has hurt them. According to Katz, the Thunder at one point went 22 minutes without an assist in Game 4.
This George three – from 33 feet out, according to NBA.com/Stats – came after a defensive stop. It would have cut the lead to nine had it gone in. Instead, a long rebound led to a Jazz transition basket that pushed the lead to 14.
Some of the Thunder’s struggles are bad luck. Over the last three games, the Thunder are shooting just 32% on catch-and-shoot opportunities and only 40% on “wide open” shots – shots with no defender within six feet. Logic would suggest that talented scorers like Westbrook, George, and Anthony – the latter of whom struggled with efficiency all season – would warm up at some point in the series. But time is running out.
Add in the Thunder’s rebounding and turnover woes – they rank 14th and 12th in both categories in the playoffs – and there’s little that the Thunder are doing even above-average. Their offense has sank to dead-last in efficiency in the postseason. All of it is a bad recipe against a technically sound Jazz team that has been rolling since the All-Star break.
The Thunder know as well as any team that a 3-1 series lead does not mean it’s over – they had the Warriors against the ropes in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, only to lose three straight games. But a team built for the playoffs is floundering with some of the most basic tenets of playoff basketball – defense, rebounding, turnovers, and shot creation.
A first-round loss would bring up gigantic questions for a team that was built to achieve more than just a postseason berth. That it could come at the hands of a well-rounded team without a household name would only make it crueler.