Small-ball is OKC’s Best Chance Against Houston


It took an immense effort from OKC’s entire roster to beat Houston. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder combined for 78 points. Luguentz Dort did a phenomenal job defending James Harden. All this for a 119-107 overtime win, as the Thunder managed to avoid going down 3-0 to the Rockets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Not only did the Game 3 win get the Thunder back into the series, but it also revealed a new lineup that they could benefit from for the remainder of the series against Houston. This lineup is Oklahoma City’s own version of small-ball: Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Schröder, Dort and Danilo Gallinari.

The Thunder used this lineup in overtime and outscored the Rockets 15-3, including opening the overtime period with a 12-0 run. This lineup produced the Thunder’s best offense all series while also playing extremely well defensively.

Here are three reasons why the Thunder should move forward with their own version of small-ball for the remainder of the series:

Steven Adams has been relatively quiet

It seems counter intuitive for Oklahoma City to not use the 7-foot Steven Adams to exploit the Rockets, who do not play anyone over 6-foot-8. However, Adams has actually been more of a hindrance than a help against the Rockets.

Even though Adams has at least four inches on whomever is defending him, he has not been involved much in Oklahoma City’s offense. When he has gotten the ball, he has not been looking for his shot but rather passes it or gives it to a teammate off a dribble handoff almost immediately.

Defensively, Adams is a major liability against the Rockets because of their small-ball lineup. If Adams comes all the way out to defend the perimeter, his man is blowing by him and getting an easy layup or dunk. On the other hand, if Adams does not come out to defend the perimeter then he is giving his man a wide-open 3-pointer.

At this point, the only benefit to having Adams on the floor is for rebounding purposes, but OKC still manages to win the battle of the boards without him.

Lu Dort has to be on the floor for the Thunder to have a chance against James Harden

Dort’s absence in the opening game of the series really showed as Harden dissected the Thunder’s defense, scoring at will. But since returning to action, Dort has made Harden’s life extremely difficult over the past two games.

Harden is one of the NBA’s greatest scorers but has struggled to find a rhythm when being guarded by Dort.

Dort moves his feet extremely well which allows him to stay in front of Harden. Dort is also adept at not defending with his hands, which makes it much more difficult for Harden to draw a foul. He has the size and strength to force Harden to take tough shots when attacking the rim.

Having Dort on the floor against Harden is an absolute necessity for the Thunder if they want to have a chance of winning this series.

Small-ball gives the Thunder another shooter on the floor

The Rockets averaged 117.8 points per game in the regular season, which ranked second-best in the NBA. That’s about seven more points than OKC. This means that Oklahoma City is going to have to win some shootouts if they want to come back from their 2-1 series deficit.

This is where the small-ball lineup comes into play. Playing Gallinari at the five makes Oklahoma City’s offense much more threatening because it allows the Thunder to stretch the floor. It gives their guards more room to operate while also having the option to kick it out to the Italian forward.

When Gallinari goes to the bench, the Thunder can rotate in Mike Muscala, who shoots 37.8 percent from deep, and Darius Bazley, who has shot lights out from behind the arc in the bubble, at the five.

The bottom line is that Oklahoma City has to make some 3’s to compete with Houston, and playing a small-ball lineup allows the Thunder to have their best shooters all on the floor at once.

About James Mueller

James Mueller is a current student at the University of Houston who is majoring in both Sports Administration and Journalism. James has been passionate about sports his entire life and has extensive knowledge about all the major sports.

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