It was easy to be optimistic after the Oklahoma City Thunder dropped Game 1 on Tuesday. They were without their best perimeter defender against the game’s top scorer, three of their top scoring options had three simultaneous bad shooting games and their closeout/help defense were as bad as we’ve seen all season.
All they had to do was get their top defender back, get Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroeder in rhythm and they’d be good to win Game 2, right?
First Takeaway: Lu Dort *Did* Make A Difference
Thunder coach Billy Donovan played coy once again with his starting lineup before Thursday’s game.
Dort got the starting nod against James Harden and didn’t appear to be on any minutes restriction. Dort, who averaged 24.5 minutes of playing time in his 28 starts since January, played 25 minutes in Game 2.
The strained right knee didn’t look like it gave Dort trouble against a guard who changes directions off the dribble with ease like Harden. The Beard was content with distributing the rock (nine assists, zero turnovers) because he couldn’t get going offensively. Dort’s defense on Harden (5-for-16 shooting, 2-for-11 on 3-pointers) drew rave reviews from Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy during the ESPN telecast and deservedly so.
Second Takeaway: Oklahoma City’s Team Defense, However…
Speaking of analysts, and specifically analysts named Van Gundy, TNT NBA analyst Stan Van Gundy wondered aloud what we were all wondering to ourselves during the fourth quarter of Game 1 on Tuesday night.
“I can’t understand why Oklahoma City, who’s normally a very solid defensive team, is almost refusing to help each other at the defensive end.” – Stan Van Gundy
The addition of Dort didn’t change this for the Thunder.
The Rockets started the game 8-for-16 on 3-pointers and didn’t stop firing until they finished with a playoff-record 56 3-point attempts in Game 2. OKC’s help defense was sluggish again against Houston’s pick-and-roll offense.
Austin Rivers also did this.
Third Takeaway: The Rockets’ Defense Continues To Dazzle
Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroeder were more productive on Thursday but were still largely stymied by Houston’s defense.
It was difficult for OKC to figure out whether Houston was playing a zone defense or a man-to-man defense in Game 1 and towards the end of Game 2. Turns out, that was by design.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni admitted as much after Game 1.
The ever-morphing Rockets defense caused the Thunder to go through long shooting droughts. After hitting eight of their first 16 3-pointers, Houston missed 12 consecutive shots in the second quarter but all Oklahoma City could do was hang on to a single-digit lead heading into halftime.
How can you attack if you’re not sure what you’re attacking?
It may have looked like the Thunder played better in Game 2.
The stars aligned: no Westbrook for Houston, Dort frustrated James Harden, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (31 points) played more like himself, Houston struggled shooting from the perimeter, Oklahoma City won the rebounding battle and it still resulted in a loss.
That’s why this 2-0 series deficit feels worse than it already is for Oklahoma City. What has to give between now and Saturday?
Stronger team defense.