Round 1 Film Preview: Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder
The most fascinating matchup of the first round starts tomorrow. Beyond playing in Orlando without fans, beyond the returns of Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook a year after their trade, Oklahoma v Houston is just a weird matchup for both teams. They both naturally negate a lot of what the other does well, and will have to dig deep to pull out the series win. Houston forces the 2nd most turnovers in the league since smallball began, but the Thunder are one of the best teams at protecting the ball. Conversely, Houston is dead last in defensive rebounding, but OKC is 2nd to last in offensive rebounding. Oklahoma is also 2nd worst in transition offense, something Houston has struggled containing all year. The extra possessions and points you can usually add on to each team’s tally at the start of the game could be reset to zero in this matchup.
Even looking at the film of the previous games between the two, a regular season series the Thunder won 2-1, you get limited insight into how things could progress in the playoffs. Every game was before the Capela trade. Plus, Russell Westbrook is out for Houston and Lu Dort is out for OKC. The health of Danuel House, PJ Tucker and Chris Paul is also a question mark as they all enter the postseason banged up.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing we can glean from pouring over the film we have so far. So, on that note, let’s dig right in. The first thing I would like to focus on is Dort’s defense, which really can’t be overstated. Him missing Tuesday’s game is a huge win for Houston. Watch below as he is able to stay in front of Harden, using a unique combination of strength, a low centre of gravity and foot speed. Whether it’s closing quickly on a stepback, keeping Harden in front of him on a drive, or fighting through screens to stick with him off-ball, Dort was a pest in their January 20th matchup.
Now compare that to Terrance Ferguson, who is well regarded defensively in his own right. Ferguson often looked silly guarding Harden, reacting late as Harden danced and cooked, fouling constantly, and being blindsided by PJ Tucker's spine-crunching screens.
The Thunder didn’t put Chris Paul on Harden, and per The Basketball Index they have been reluctant all season to use his energy guarding primary ballhandlers. Without Dort, and with Ferguson unable to hang with Harden (and likely dropped from the rotation anyway), things get dicey quickly for OKC.
They do have the return of Andre Roberson to throw at Harden, another elite defender. But we know how this film ends. Roberson is a career 25.5% 3-point shooter, shooting an even worse 21.4% since the restart. In the 2017 playoff matchup he was rendered unplayable by shooting a completely embarrassing 3-21 from the free-throw line, sending the Rockets bench into laughing fits. Can OKC rely on Dort when he does return to guard Harden all series? We know the minutes load Harden can carry with Westbrook out. But Dort has played 36 games in his short NBA career so far, and while his usage has increased in Orlando, he has only played over 30 minutes in a game seven times in his rookie season.
In their regular season matchups, OKC didn’t double Harden, even with Westbrook off the court. They did attempt to trap him off screens, which I think they will start off doing again. Harden wasn’t able to properly counter the defensive attention with a good pick n pop option. Tucker is a rare above the break shooter, taking just .9 per game at a 25.8% clip this season. Robert Covington will play this role in the playoffs, where he is a much more capable above the break shooter (getting up to 40% some seasons, though mostly hovering around 35%).
Instead of straight up doubling, OKC opted to send strong help on Harden. This is simply a case of Houston needing their shooters to punish the defense. This didn't happen in the regular season series, where Houston shot 25 of 105 on open or wide open shots per NBA tracking, a dismal 23.8%. They also passed up open shots. Sequences like this can't happen.
Harden completely telegraphs this pass, which might be why the defense leaves PJ Tucker in the strong side corner, but Houston will live and die by having guys like McLemore and Tucker hit open shots.
We should probably mention Russell Westbrook now. As of writing, Westbrook has been ruled out of game 1, and nobody expects him back for game 2 either. Westbrook was excellent in the 3 games against OKC this year, averaging 29 points, 8.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds on 59% shooting. Westbrook was so efficient by feasting in the post against OKC's guards. Watch below as he makes easy work of Gilgeous-Alexander, Schröder and Diallo, backing them down deep into the paint before getting his shot off.
Their guards, with the exception of Dort, are long, wiry and can't handle the mismatch with Russ in this position. We even saw Harden break out a rare post move, getting an and-1 as Schröder attempted a particularly audacious flop for the charge call.
This is something I would like to see more of if the Thunder throw double coverage at Harden on the perimeter.
Let's turn our attention now to the defensive end. Houston's defense was pretty mediocre through their 3 games, posting a 109.8 defensive rating, which happens to be their exact average throughout the season – which also happens to be exactly average at 15th in the league. Clearly there is room for improvement, and Houston’s championship ambitions will only go as far as their defense takes them.
There are going to be matchup issues. Any guy who can shoot 40%+ from the 3-point line is going to get minutes under Mike D'Antoni, but Houston should keep Ben McLemore as far away from Chris Paul as possible. If OKC is in the bonus, McLemore shouldn't be on the court. In fact, he shouldn't even be in the arena, he will be falling for Chris Paul rip-throughs off the bench.
I won't go further on Chris Paul, as Houston fans are well aware of the damage he can do. Much will depend on how well he can beat guys like PJ Tucker and Robert Covington off switches, rather than Clint Capela.
The Thunder average the 2nd most drives in the league, and with their 3-guard lineup sure to get plenty of burn, they will look to be hyper-aggressive attacking the rim. When a team breaks down Houston's smallball defense, they can score here. Opponents are shooting 66.2% at the rim per Cleaning The Glass since Capela's last game. However, Houston makes them work to get there by packing the paint. 21% of opponent shots instead come from the short-mid range, 4-14 feet. Teams are shooting a very low 36.3% from that zone, 4th lowest in the league.
How strongly Houston can pack the paint depends on whether the opponent can punish them with perimeter shooting. And this is where OKC will struggle.
Shooting is OKC's biggest weakness. Look at how packed the paint is on SGA's drive, with Harden completely ignoring Dort in the corner. Twice in the same possession he negatively impacts the offense, as Harden leaves him again to double Gallinari when he gets the post up. When they finally kick the ball to the wide open Dort, he airballs the 3.
Of the Thunder's top ten players in minutes played so far this season, 6 aren’t a threat from deep. That includes centers Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams, but also guards and wings. Dort is a 29.7% 3-point shooter, Ferguson is at 29.2%, Diallo 28.1%. Adding Roberson is even worse. Beyond that Bazley is at 34.8%, although he’s been red hot in Orlando. The sun rises and the sun falls, 3 MVPs have come and gone, but Sam Presti still can’t resist a defender who can’t shoot.
This brings us to Dennis Schröder. Schröder torched the Rockets, averaging 20.3 points while shooting 60% from the field and 47.4% from deep. He has revitalised his career in Oklahoma, becoming a legitimate 6th man of the year contender. For all the narrative surrounding Carmelo Anthony in the bubble, less has been made of Oklahoma nabbing Schröder using Melo’s contract and a lottery protected 1st round pick.
He is excellent at getting to the rim, shooting 60.8% within 5 feet. His first step is one of the quickest in the league, and he had even PJ Tucker on skates with his change of pace.
The Rockets had a smart strategy defending Schröder in the pick n roll. In these three clips, it looks as if the guard was told to fight over the screen. It’s not perfect, but it almost turns into a drop coverage as Tucker sits so far back. On all occasions Schröder is deterred from driving.
Houston should continue this when guarding him straight up. Schröder is a 26.8% pull up 3-point shooter this season. His career average is 28.6%. Watch here how much room Eric Gordon leaves, and how quickly he starts backtracking in anticipation of the drive. Schröder is forced to kick out for a contested Mike Muscala 3.
Houston needs to give him the Giannis treatment every time he’s down the court. Schröder exploded for 15 points in the 4th quarter of their last matchup, helping turn a 16-point deficit into a 5-point win. Look at how high up multiple defenders are guarding him here, as he continued to drive right past them for easy layups.
He should be seeing a wall of red around the free throw line. And if he does beat his man off a high pick n roll and gets downhill, Houston needs to collapse hard. This is made a lot easier with OKC's lack of shooting threats. In both the plays below Houston leaves the strong side corner to collapse on the drive, ignoring non-shooters Diallo and Dort. And while Dort makes the shot on the second play, it's not exactly pretty.
This play pretty much sums up the lengths Houston can go to in order to prevent OKC from getting to the rim.
Tucker drops on the slip screen deterring the first drive attempt from Schröder. When he gets it back, Tucker is up with him but he passes out again off the drive as he sees multiple bodies in front of him. With Bazley in the dunkers spot and Diallo in the corner, House and Sefolosha are able to help on the drive. Chris Paul then has the ball on the wing, with Westbrook guarding and House covering the drive right by leaving Diallo. He makes the pass and Diallo opts not to shoot, instead driving into the paint which is again crowded, because House was already sagging off, and Sefolosha leaves Bazley in the other corner.
The Rockets can give Shai Gilgeous-Alexander similar treatment in terms of backing off. He is only a 31.9% pull up 3-point shooter for his career so far. However, they had enough success with House guarding him traditionally in their matchups. House was excellent staying with him on drives, and if healthy for the series, expect that assignment to continue.
Lastly, Houston will use Austin Rivers a lot. Rivers is fast and wiry enough to fight through and around off-ball screens and stay with a cutter. His ball denial is excellent.
Rivers didn’t get much run against OKC this season. He only played 15 minutes in the first game, and was 0-9 from the field in the second game. He was injured for the final matchup. With Westbrook out, and OKC likely to go to the 3-guard lineup early and often, Rivers will be a much bigger factor in this series.
We haven’t mentioned Gallinari so far, who will get plenty of touches and look to post up. We know Houston will live with those and have Harden defend him down low. He’s OKC’s best shooter, hitting above 40% from 3, and he certainly had stretches in their regular season games where he looked unstoppable. But there were some late closeouts, not picking him up in transition, simple stuff Houston can do better with. Gallinari has to be a priority on the scouting report, stopping him getting open shots from deep and keeping him in a post battle with Harden. There’s less to say on that, as it’s well documented how Harden and Houston can defend the post. But of course it’s worth a reminder that OKC does have multiple weapons.
There are plenty of other variables not covered, and we will likely see many twists and turns throughout the series. I think Houston can feel pretty good about how they will defend OKC's 3-guard lineup, and while it may be an underrated story nationally, Dort's absence in game 1 should help Harden to carry the offense without much burden. Getting to a game 3 with a series lead will be huge, allowing Houston to evaluate Westbrook's health without panicking. Ultimately, I think OKC will struggle to score in the halfcourt against Houston, and it will be their defense that will see them through.