The Oklahoma City Thunder have been in this position against a very good team before. You only have to look back one season to find them in a 1-0 series hole with a blowout loss in the rearview mirror against the San Antonio Spurs, a series they won. But aside from the obvious “they had Kevin Durant last year” caveat, this series feels like a different animal.
There is video from Sunday night of Thunder coach Billy Donovan appearing to lean over to assistant coach Mo Cheeks and say, “can’t play (Enes) Kanter” after James Harden drove into the lane and lobbed an alley-oop to Clint Capela, leaving big man Kanter hanging out to dry. There is a lot of heated emotion in games of that magnitude, and when there are cameras around at all times you can’t escape the volatile moment of instant reaction, but the question remains: Is he right even if he cushioned those on Tuesday by indicating he was referring to certain coverages?
Oklahoma City looked completely overwhelmed in the first game against the Spurs during last season’s Western Conference semifinals, but bounced back to take the series in six games, a shock to many covering and watching the series from the start. Kanter was a major reason for that huge turnaround. His presence in a big lineup next to Steven Adams was a nightmare for San Antonio to deal with on the glass, and it was the adjustment the team rode to an eventual series win.
But less than a year removed from that move, we’re asking if a player on a maximum contract can even play in the first round of the playoffs. Hyperbolic as it may be, it’s still a fair question. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
The Rockets are a different animal from most in the league — especially compared to the Spurs of last season. They have two goals: get to the rim, or shoot the 3-pointer.
“We’re gonna play the same way every game. If a team wants to take us away from our 3-point shot, we’re going to get points in the paint,” Ryan Anderson said. “If they wanna focus a little more on stopping us in the paint it’s just going to open up our shooting.”
It’s the line you have to toe against the Rockets. They’re going to spread you out, use a high pick-and-roll with James Harden handling the ball, then run downhill and force you to make a decision. Houston led the NBA with more than 40 3-point attempts per game this season — they had ONLY 33 attempts Sunday night and made just 10 of them. That’s a veritable win for the Thunder. But the Rockets exploded for 62 points in the paint and absolutely demolished Oklahoma City, 31-4, on second-chance points. It’s like Anderson said: If you take away one aspect of the inside-out game from Houston, they’ll hit you in the face with the other.
The thing is, the Thunder aren't exactly awful at defending the pick-and-roll. They allowed just 0.83 points per possession, according to Synergy data, when defending the ball-handler in those situations during the regular season, which is good enough for eighth in the league. On the other hand, they give up 1.02 points per possession when the roll man finishes the play, which is middle of the pack in the NBA and an issue against a guy like Capela, who loves to run to the rim when Harden drives. The other problem in this equation for Oklahoma City is it gave up 0.99 points per possession on spot-ups during the season — another middle-of-the-pack number.
This is where we get back to the Kanter dilemma. The Rockets create a ton of space for one of the league’s greatest offensive masterminds in Harden to adlib, something the Spurs didn’t have last season when the Thunder won the series. Houston hit nine of the 10 shots they attempted off Harden passes in Game 1.
San Antonio was big, but not big and physical enough for Donovan to be afraid of the specific matchup with his own big men. Capela, Nene and Montrezl Harrell all played Sunday night, but there wasn’t a single second any of the three were on the court together at the same time. Whether it was Anderson spreading the floor or Trevor Ariza sliding to the four, there was always spacing from the power forward position.
Oklahoma City was the best rebounding team in the league during the regular season. It was and is that team’s biggest strength. But matters change when you face a team that spreads the entire lineup out 30 feet from the basket with the possible MVP of the NBA running the show via a wide-open high pick-and-roll.
Kanter and Adams played 397 minutes together over the course of the regular season. During that time, the Thunder boasted an absurd 35.3 offensive-rebound percentage and a ridiculous 57.9 rebound percentage overall — numbers that would stand as far and away the best in the league on their own. On Sunday night, the Rockets outrebounded the Thunder 56-41, and if you give Houston too many second chances, even if the 3s aren’t dropping, you’re cooked.
But therein lies the problem: How can you play big when the offense you’re defending is so far from the basket? More specifically, where does Kanter fit in? There is no doubt he’s a skilled offensive player, but his defense, especially in space, can be a major problem. The Thunder employed an all-out switching scheme against the Rockets on Sunday, a common theme in today’s NBA and something you almost have to do against Harden. But that’s going to inevitably pull the big (whoever it may be) away from the basket. Either that or force them to make a decision between helping on the drive or defending the lob to Capela. This is not the strong point of Kanter’s game.
The Thunder gave up 125.9 points per 100 possessions and were outscored by almost 30 points per 100 possessions when Kanter was on the floor Sunday night. While it’s also fair to point out it was a rough evening for almost everyone on that team, it’s difficult to ignore the fact we saw Donovan tell an assistant on live television Kanter is essentially unplayable.
Houston is designed to demoralize a team, though. If The Beard and Friends are firing on all cylinders, it can often feel like an impossible task to find a way to stop them. But sports are emotional, and we’ve all said things in moments of passion we either didn’t mean or we come to regret.
Smart money would say Kanter will still play a role in this series for Oklahoma City — he’s too important to the team; but against the Rockets and that system, the leash may become shorter by the day.