No one outside the state of Oklahoma expected the Thunder to be this good, but there are a few ways Oklahoma City can be beat.
Before the NBA season went on hiatus, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the biggest surprise in the league. Most people believed that the Thunder would be hovering somewhere near the lottery after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but head coach Billy Donovan has made the most of what he got in return.
In exchange for Westbrook, Oklahoma City picked up All-Star point guard Chris Paul from Houston to be the team’s veteran leader. For George, Shai Gilgeous Alexander and Danilo Gallinari have added a new element, coming in from the Clippers.
With the additions, the new-look Thunder currently sits at 40-24, which is good enough for fifth in the West. What looked to be a group of misfits at the start of the season have come together to be in position for a real playoff push throughout the summer and early fall.
Oklahoma City has been a Cinderella, the team is nowhere near immortal. Each and every one of the 22 teams participating in the NBA restart has its weaknesses that can be attacked. For the teams that will square off with the Thunder during the seeding games and/or playoffs, think of this as your manual for how exactly to take them down.
So, how do you beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a playoff series?
Hit the glass: Although the Thunder have Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel as their big men that start and come off the bench, respectively, Oklahoma City is a perimeter-oriented team that does not spend a lot of time banging in the paint.
Here is a key stat to note in terms of OKC’s rebounding totals: Gilgeous Alexander is actually second on the team in the statistical category with 6.1 per game and Adams sits at 9.4 to lead the team. While it is a testament to Gilgeous-Alexander’s hustle, it says a lot about a team that its second-leading rebounder is its starting shooting guard.
Before you even get to Noel, both Gallinari and Paul also average more boards per game than the former Kentucky big man. Granted, the four guys above him are OKC’s consistent starters, but they all spend most of their time on the court surrounding the 3-point arc.
As a team, OKC ranks 26th in the league in total rebounds per game and last in offensive rebounding. This means that closing out once a shot goes up and limiting second-chance opportunities will be critical for any team going against the Thunder.
While Adams is a whole lot of man to deal with down low, the big men on opposing teams cannot be the only ones relied upon to grab boards. Similar to how Gilgeous-Alexander goes for rebounds, guards on opposing teams will have to take it just as seriously.
Take advantage of the team’s second unit: Dennis Schroder is the guy that takes charge off the bench for Donovan’s squad, averaging exactly 19 points per game. Outside of him and the core four of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Adams and Gallinari, no one else averages double-figure scoring.
The next closest would be Noel at 7.7 points per game. Noel’s game was never based on his scoring ability, he has made his bones in the league as a rebounder and defender. This means that if there is an advantage to be used against OKC, its going right at their bench.
The core four starters cannot play all 48 minutes, meaning they are going to need to rest and someone else will have to pick up the slack. No offense to Terrance Ferguson, Abdel Nader and Hamidou Diallo, but these guys are not coming in expected to fill the shoes of the top guys.
Another component that needs to be taken into account is the fact that Schroder has already stated that he will be leaving the bubble in a matter of weeks in preparation for the birth of his expected child. Given the time off for fatherly duties combined with having to be quarantined for a period of time, there is even more of a window to take advantage of the Thunder’s lack of depth with the absence of a Sixth Man of the Year contender.
Stay out of foul trouble: Oklahoma City is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the league. They rank in the top 10 in makes, attempts and percentage as a team.
Donovan’s crew has a bit of a throwback feel to how it works offensively. The Thunder do not attempt a lot of 3s, but their overall field goal percentage is high. They likes to attack the rim as well as take advantage of any matchup problems that their small-ball lineup can cause.
One thing that separates good teams from great teams is the fact that when everything is breaking down offensively, there is one thing that can be done to get things back on track. For Oklahoma City, that means getting to the line. As a team, the Thunder shoot close to 80 percent.
This means you want to avoid foul trouble as early as possible and play solid defense. Forcing Oklahoma City to take and make shots they do not want would be the key on the defensive side of the ball.
The Thunder have the makings of a team that can make plenty of noise in a playoff format. If teams follow these key guidelines when squaring off with them, then they can knock off one of the upstart teams in Orlando.