The Portland Trail Blazers lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-0 in their best-of-seven NBA Playoffs series. That Portland has held homecourt so far in the series is mildly unexpected given their regular-season sweep at the hands of the Thunder. Even more surprising has been the authority with which the Blazers drove home their wins. The Thunder had Portland’s number, but have seemingly forgotten how to dial it. By the end of Game 2, they couldn’t even find their phone.
Paul George’s shoulder injury clearly has something to do with Oklahoma City’s woes, but they’re not helping themselves any with their style of play. Here are five things they need to change up if they want to stay alive past Friday night.
Find a Superstar the Blazers Have to Double
Paul George looked ground-bound and terrible in Game 1. He played much better in Game 2 (27 points on 11-20 shooting) but still resembled a reliable sedan more than a high-end sports car.
Russell Westbrook played inversely to George, looking decent in the first game, struggling in the second with 14 points on 5-20 shooting.
Portland’s defense looked fantastic in Game 2, particularly in the decisive 37-21 third quarter that turned the game. During their impressive stands, the Blazers were able to devote a single defender each to George and Westbrook, living with the consequences (which weren’t severe). The ripple effect was noticeable. Portland’s wings stayed home, their centers lurked in wait to help on penetration. Nobody had to move until they wanted to.
Whether it’s Westbrook or George, the Thunder have to put a superstar on the court who will force the Blazers to double team. If George can go, he’s the man. If not, Oklahoma City would be better off with 40 shot attempts from Westbrook than they are with the offensive mush they’ve shown so far. Whatever they have to do to bend the defense and make Portland move is justifiable.
Pressure the Centers
So far the Thunder have gone up against Enes Kanter in the post while pulling Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard to the perimeter. This is like playing Hearts and trying your hardest to gobble up the Queen of Spades. (They’re not even shooting the moon. Although judging by their perimeter stats, they might well be aiming at it.)
Oklahoma City has got to start putting Kanter into motion on defense. He’s about as effective as a guard in your average early-00’s PC prison escape game, yet they keep trying to go through rather than around him.
Once Kanter fatigues or gets in foul trouble, they’re supposed to go right at Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard in the post, maybe with a little motion against Leonard first. Instead they’re giving Portland’s back-ups a free pass.
All this is the exact opposite of what they should be doing. They might want to think about changing up strategy soon.
Close the Three-Point Gap
Portland has been able to defend where they want, when they want, and how they want because Oklahoma City has hit three-point shots at an unmentionable rate. OK, we’ll mention it: they’re 10-61 from distance in the series so far. That’s a 16.4% success rate. Their 34.8% average for the season—a percentage which left them a modest 22nd in the NBA—seems like a blessed mirage by comparison. If they shot even that well, they’d have scored 34 extra points over the last two games.
It’s not like the Blazers are closing out on every attempt. Oklahoma City is missing opportunities. Nobody expects them to morph into the Golden State Warriors, but they can’t keep shooting that poorly and expect to have a chance in this, or any, series.
Penetrate Against the Bench
Dennis Schroder is one of the best bench players in the NBA. Neither Seth Curry nor Rodney Hood can stay with him, much less Evan Turner. Schroder is not a great three-point threat, but his driving, scoring, and passing are legit.
Dennis Schroder attempted 7 three-pointers in Game 1, missing all of them. He was 5-10 from the field otherwise. He attempted only 5 shots total in Game 2.
Whether he plays against Portland’s second unit proper or blends in with the first, the Thunder are missing a huge opportunity by not letting Schroder turn downhill. The soft, mushy underbelly of Portland’s rotation is waiting to get exposed if the upper-tier guys get in foul trouble. Westbrook isn’t the only guy capable of pulling back the curtain. Schroder needs the ball and a directive to go to work.
Finish with Aggression
Speaking of fouls...the Thunder might draw more if they’d finish with authority. If George’s shoulder prevents him from jamming in traffic, use him as a decoy. Meanwhile get your athletes together, tell them to go hard to the rim, and hear the serenade of whistles begin.
It’s like the Blazers blocked a few shots in Game 1 and all of a sudden the Thunder started believing they’re going up against David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Oklahoma City’s attempts at finesse and hesitation have, ironically, let to even more blocks.
The Blazers can’t win with blocked shots unless you let them. That’s not their game. They sure can lose with enough fouls, enough bruises, and a high enough shooting percentage from the opponent.
Oklahoma City tried to get physical with Portland on the defensive end in Game 2, with a little bit of extracurricular activity as frosting. Portland won’t stop scoring because you bump them a few times and they’ve proven themselves mature enough not to fall for the UFC-wannabe bait. How about going at them the old-fashioned way, giving them the exact kind of physicality that they haven’t handled well: scoring with power and authority?
The Thunder don’t have to do all of these things at once, but if they fail to do any of them, nothing else is going to matter.
Game 3 tips at 6:30 PM, Pacific on Friday.