Paul George is currently the best perimeter defender on the Oklahoma City Thunder roster (get well, Andre Roberson), but he hasn’t spent much time guarding Utah’s best offensive player (Donovan Mitchell). Instead, most of Playoff P’s defensive possessions have involved harassing Joe Ingles. Why is George guarding the lesser threat?
Perhaps the decision to have George matched up on Ingles is about conserving his energy for offense, but PG is hardly taking plays off on the defensive end. On the contrary, he’s made it his mission to limit Ingles’ impact. Though George has been unabashedly disrespectful to Ingles on the court and at the podium, the matchup assignment itself is an implicit nod of acknowledgment from OKC with regards to Ingles’ playmaking abilities and his importance to the Jazz offense.
Quin Snyder’s offense is a whirring system of passes, screens, handoffs and player motion. Mitchell is the team’s offensive locomotive, but Ingles is the station-master who keeps the trains running on time. He facilitates the movement, creates advantages with his nifty passing and stretches out the defense with his elite long-range shooting. While he didn’t score much himself in pick-and-rolls, Ingles was Utah’s best pick-and-roll creator (when you factor in passing) during the regular season:
Ingles’ opportunities to create for teammates have dried up whenever George guards him. George has relentlessly chased the Aussie around screens and used his length to disrupt hand-offs. He often plays such tight ball denial that he pushes Ingles away from the basket if he doesn’t outright prevent the Jazz wing from getting the ball. He has gotten into Ingles’ airspace on the perimeter and impeded his ability to read the floor and make passes. The result? An out-of-sorts Joe Ingles who has struggled to create offense for his teammates whenever George is in the vicinity.
The concept of siccing George on Ingles makes some sense. George might be able to shut down Mitchell on his own, but if Ingles gets going he has a knack for unlocking the entire offense and getting everyone involved. With George single-handedly taking Ingles out of the game, the rest of OKC’s defense can theoretically load up on Mitchell. The Thunder have made it clear they’ll live with Ricky Rubio taking shots, but the strategy hasn’t unfolded according to plan. The Spaniard has burned them (so far), and the scheme was a disorganized, incohesive mess in Game 3 with everyone—George included—responsible for the breakdowns.
OKC can tighten up the defense, and if Rubio’s offense drops off Utah will need Ingles’ playmaking abilities to take some of the burden off their star rookie. Even though Ingles got loose for a number of open threes in Game 3, George has snuffed out his playmaking. After averaging 4.8 assists for the regular season, Ingles is only at 2.3 assists per game in the series—primarily the result of George hounding his every step. If Donovan Mitchell continues to shine, however, OKC may decide to give Playoff P the full-time job of stopping him. Matchup stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but George has blanketed the rookie when they’ve gone head-to-head in the series:
George may even need to check Rubio for certain stretches if the creative point guard continues to pick apart OKC’s pick-and-roll defense like he did in Game 3. The Thunder aren’t the impenetrable defensive force they were with Andre Roberson in the mix, but George is still a one-man wrecking crew. Through three games OKC Coach Billy Donovan has opted to primarily deploy him against Ingles, but we may see him start bouncing around more to put out whichever fire is burning brightest.
What Else I’ll be Watching in Jazz—Thunder
Steven Adams Against the World
Steven Adams’ prolific offensive rebounding has been rightfully lauded over the course of the season, but it’s been even more spectacular to watch in a playoff setting. Rudy Gobert is one of the best defensive and rebounding centers in the game, but even he struggles to deal with Adams. Very few big men can single-handedly keep Adams off the boards—he’s too big, too strong, too crafty and too relentless.
The only way to keep him off the glass is to send multiple players at him, and that’s what the Jazz have done. The Jazz coaching staff have clearly emphasized Adams’ rebounding prowess in their scouting report, and Utah’s guards have paid attention.
Adams is still making his presence felt by hauling in three offensive boards per game (down from his league-leading 5.1 offensive rebounds for the season), but Utah has been locked into their game plan for the entire series and everyone has been fantastic at crashing down and helping out with the big Kiwi (Mitchell and Rubio in particular have been phenomenal on the glass and are first and second respectively in defensive rebounding for the Jazz in the series). OKC led the NBA by averaging 12.5 offensive boards per game in the regular season; the Thunder are only grabbing 8.3 offensive boards per game in this series, a mark that would have been second-worst in the league.
Of course, foul trouble has played a major role in OKC’s weakened offensive rebounding (side note: Gobert has done a phenomenal job of drawing fouls on Adams whenever he’s picked up early fouls). Will Utah be able to keep Adams in check for the entire game when he’s able to play 35 minutes as opposed to 25 minutes?
Utah’s Big-to-Big Passing
When I wrote about the Jazz earlier in the year, I discussed the flaws in their starting lineup (more specifically, the trio of Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors) and why they might have to make some changes to their rotation. Well, I was wrong. Quin Snyder MIGHT know more about basketball and about his team than yours truly. Utah stuck with their starting lineup, and they dominated the second half of the season.
But I was still worried about how the spacing of their starters would fare against a long, rangy and (mostly) active OKC defense. Ricky Rubio deserves some major credit for how he’s performed on the offensive end, but I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Utah’s big men navigating a crowded interior with aplomb. Both Favors and Gobert maximize the spacing with precise positioning (the difference between standing with your feet on the baseline and 2 feet higher on the floor is huge), and the duo has consistently made passes with a skill and craft that belie their gargantuan size.
If the bigs continue to make these kind of plays in short-roll situations, OKC will have to consider tweaking their pick-and-roll coverages (at the very least, Billy Donovan will need to think about going under screens against non-shooters like Rubio and Dante Exum).
Can Westbrook Get His Groove Back?
Russell Westbrook is the most talented player in this series, but the Jazz are putting on a clinic in how to defend him. Westbrook’s efficiency has plummeted against Utah (39 eFG%), and he’s yet to really make his mark on the series—a mind-boggling statement considering that he’s averaging a triple-double for the playoffs.
His raw totals look good, but Westbrook hasn’t been the relentless aggressor we’re used to seeing because Rudy Gobert’s presence is hampering Westbrook’s pick-and-roll game. Deterred by the prospect of trying to finish over Gobert at the rim, Westbrook has been settling for more pull-up 2s and taking fewer shots within 10 feet of the rim (and he’s shooting poorly on both shot types in the series).
Gobert is the league’s premier rim protector because he’s a savant at toeing the line between the ball-handler and roll man, often shutting down both options at once. If the pick-and-roll is Westbrook’s bread and butter, Gobert has (so far) been the Atkins Diet. Russ isn’t getting the carbs he’s used to, and it’s limiting his offensive impact.
Additionally, the Jazz are doing an excellent job being disciplined and energetic when it comes to getting back on transition defense. Westbrook is constantly seeing bodies ahead of him, so he’s only had a few opportunities to fly in the open court and get all the way to the basket. Most of the time he’s had to pull up for a mid-ranger or try to convert a difficult high-speed layup against a waiting defender.
OKC still holds the talent edge, but Utah has been more precise with its execution throughout the series. Westbrook is bound to explode for a massive offensive outing at some point, but the Jazz have minimized the damage from Westbrook’s best play-types and blunted some of his aggression.
Engaging Gobert directly in pick-and-roll, and therefore giving him the advantage of dropping back and waiting for Russ to enter his zone of terror, has not been fruitful. Maybe OKC can create driving lanes for Russ with their 5-out lineups or by using their 4s as Westbrook’s pick-and-roll partners and keeping Gobert at a (very long French) arm’s length.