The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Game 2 of their series against the Utah Jazz entirely in the fourth quarter. OKC was up five heading into the period, with the team’s predominant concern being foul trouble for Steven Adams and perhaps an understanding that wonder rookie Donovan Mitchell was starting to get cooking.
They should have been concerned about the lid that was apparently secretly installed on the Thunder’s hoop during the break.
As SB Nation writer Kristian Winfield pointed out, the Thunder’s three primary weapons — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — shot a combined 0-14 in the fourth quarter. The question, then, is why?
Thunder skeptics would first look to shot selection. The troika took just three shots at the rim in the fourth quarter, despite a pretty tight whistle from the officials throughout the game. Typically when you need a bucket and you’re Westbrook or George, you attack the rim. But Playoff P is suffering from hip pain after a collision in Game 1, and he didn’t have much giddy-up off the dribble on Wednesday. Westbrook attacked the paint early but slipped into a perimeter-oriented game late. (He also attempted to post up Ricky Rubio an inordinate number of times.)
But shot selection isn’t determined in a vacuum. What the defense is doing affects what shots you decide to take, even if you’re as stubborn as these scorers. And the Jazz happen to have one of the very best defenses in the NBA and the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert.
That is a huge factor, not just in how the shots the Thunder did take fared but in determining what shots the Thunder were comfortable taking.
Gobert is the league’s premier rim protector, and he played the final eight minutes, 44 seconds of the game. The Thunder went 6-of-21 from the floor in the span. Take away Steven Adams and Jerami Grant, and the other OKC players went a combined 1-of-13 with Gobert on the floor in the fourth.
Melo took one shot in the paint in the final 8:44 of the game, after facing up on Derrick Favors on the baseline. Gobert came over to help and Melo pulled up short. Miss. Melo’s other fourth-quarter attempts were all threes. Melo is shooting below 35 percent for his career on three-pointers.
George took only pull-up jumpers in the fourth when Gobert was on the floor. Again, Playoff P wasn’t terribly aggressive all night, possibly due to the hip injury. But he didn’t even test Gobert late.
Then there’s Westbook, so often criticized for doing too much late. He took just three shots and had a pair of free throws in those final 22 possessions from Oklahoma City. He had zero turnovers and four assists, too. Three dimes were to Adams as Westbrook drove inside to draw Gobert off the rim. (Adams finished these all around a recovering Gobert beautifully.) The other was a nifty pick-and-roll to Jerami Grant.
Those three Westbrook field goal attempts weren’t extraordinary: one was a fadeaway off a Rubio post-up (we don’t need any more Rubio post-ups, RWB, thanks), one was a classic 20-foot hesitation pull-up as a lurking Gobert hedged, one was a classic wild running floater over the outstretched arm of Joe Ingles (with Gobert lurking). These are all shots you expect to see Westbrook take and occasionally make down the stretch of games. He wasn’t jacking three or offering incessant Dirk Nowitzki impersonations.
Before Adams fouled out, Westbrook was drawing Gobert’s attention and feeding the big Kiwi. It was working. Adams was 3-for-3 in the fourth, with two of those scores coming from off-ball cuts, not direct screen-rolls to pull Gobert up. Westbrook is such a threat at the rim that Gobert has to at least turn his head and begin to slide over from the weak side as RWB reaches the paint. Adams is clever and has a wonderful brain sync with Westbrook. The resulting attempts were by far the best stuff OKC had going.
Once Adams went out, that option was off the table. Grant ended up with more attempts (five) than any other Thunder player in those final 8:44. That’s generally not a great sign, and four of them (including one make) were shots Utah absolutely loved seeing OKC take.
This league belongs to guards and wings now. That is indisputable. But if you don’t believe big men matter all that much any more, check out the last 8:44 of Jazz-Thunder. Mitchell was good (eight points on 3-of-7 shooting, two turnovers) but Gobert was the looming hulk that completely cinched up OKC’s attack. The Thunder’s only real success came with their own big dude finding space behind the Stifle Tower. After he fouled out, OKC relied on hoping contested jumpers fell. They did not. So it goes.