They were so similar, it was irresistible – two pieces that set so much on two series that could end tonight, and the Swing Game 4s that brought us here:
Two Pick-and Rolls in the middle of the floor, two switches, two very different results. In Utah, Ricky Rubio aired an inaugural pass to Derrick Favors, which loaded a nasty troubled Russell Westbrook.
Favors have played Carmelo Anthony in a Leithammepatch. His offensive rebounding kept Utah in Game 2 in touch. He tracked Anthony around the perimeter, patrolled the paint as he took over in the middle, and just produced enough offensive. His return to health was an underrated part of Utah's second wave ̵
Utah's beginning five has dominated; it's plus-40 in 92 minutes with the Rudy Gobert-Favors tandem on the floor. If jazz can score in its Twin Towers alignment, they generally win. The Thunder may not have believed it 10 days ago – they seem almost insulted, Joe Ingles has dared to face them – but jazz is real.
• Oklahoma City came unsteadily in the middle of Game 4. That's so great at the playoffs. Stakes are high. The atmosphere is heated. It tests teams. Whatever the cracks, whatever bad habits crutches use when things get scarce, they expose in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City spent the bulk of the middle part of Game 4 as a dull insult, as one sees in the NBA outside the tank brigade. What's this?
• Westbrook was a disaster. Maybe he and Steven Adams are more hurt than they are. The Thunder scored just 0.8 points per ball when Westbrook shoots straight out of a pick-and-roll or skips over to a teammate who instantly releases Spectrum data. And, um, Westbrook enjoys doing these things.
Gobert expelled Westbrook from the paint. As Zach Harper noted, Westbrook is less than usual at the limit and relies more on his midrange jumper. That was a predictable result; It also happened in the regular season against Utah.
When Westbrook challenged Gobert, he generally went bad. For the first time in Game 4, Westbrook was a little unnerved. At some games he turned the corner, Adams flanked him, collected the ball to do something, and suddenly realized that he had no good options. Gobert is the best in the league when covering two players at the same time. What should Westbrook do here?
Against many teams, Westbrook brings this to the rack or hits Adams with praise. On Monday, he jumped, found he could not, almost paced and shot Anthony a stomach pass. [Gobert] fooled a few times by slowing down as if he were launching a floater, pulling Gobert out a bit and calling on Adams.)
• Oklahoma City has tried to adapt Paul George, a better pull-up 3-point shooter – good enough to pull Gobert out of his comfort zone. He won them Game 1. Gobert has ventured further since then, and the on-ball defense of Ingles, Royce O'Neale, Jae Crowder and others has narrowed. Favors was a game to meet George at the bow.
Utah has plenty of Westbrook George two-man-things since Game 2 by hitting Donovan Mitchell on Westbrook, hiding Rubio on Corey Brewer, and more – a sly take
• Meanwhile, Anthony scores 37 percent and only 6 out of 26 from the depths. He hurt backboards. There is very little room in a working attack for this shot:
One pass, one long 2. This was the formula of Oklahoma City, as it was unraveled in Game 4. Utah walked past and cut open triangles. Jazz played their identity. The thunder stood around and relied on star power for a long 2s. They returned to the identity with which they had long struggled. The Thunder lost in terms of style and math.
Anthony offers a negative defense value. Jazz knows they can get a useful shot anytime by chasing it in pick-and-roll. It has not produced a bunch of dots per second spectrum, but it's a good reliability. Rubio is not doing so well. The Thunder are justifiably confident that they can turn Melo on Rubio. Mitchell is another story.
Zach talks with ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz about Raptors Wizards (1:04), Isolation basketball, Wolves-Rockets (39:34) and more.
Cousins will be a free agent summer. Zach Lowe examines how the success of New Orleans after the season changed the calculus to re-sign the injured All-Star Center.
• Oklahoma City does not have a ton of options other than playing better. Out of the first five, Billy Donovan – and by the way, do we have any idea what Donovan is about to coach the NBA? – trust only Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant and Alex Abrines. Only Grant really influenced the show. He is frankly better than Anthony.
Donovan has tried to use Patterson as a small ball center – without Grant or Adams on the ground – more than in the regular season as a way to stretch Gobert to his breaking point. It did not work. Patterson takes a long time to fire his shot – enough for Gobert to recover at pick-and-pop. He did not do much damage from dribbling. Oklahoma City has gained more ground grip with these groups by spreading the ground and allowing Westbrook to jump one to one into the open.
Donovan uses these Patterson-at-Center lineups because it's harder to work in the postseason to play three under-average 3-point shooters at the same time. That's the structure of the top five of Oklahoma City, or the huge lineup that Donovan applied in Game 4, with Grant in Corey Brewer. With Andre Roberson could expect the Thunder at least with the hunt for their sovereign shootings.
• In the third quarter of Game 4, they collapsed to this goal. It was embarrasing. Gobert feasted on some of his most basic Rim Runs of the season:
The thunder keeps Rubio up as if he were a threat from the depths. Rubio seems to have made a leap into the competence as a ski shooter. He can now meet enough open spot-up 3s. Its slimmer midrange is money. The thunder are proud of aggressive, swarming defense; they forced more sales than anyone in the regular season.
At some point you have to adapt. Discover some Rubio screens and dare to shoot 18- and 20-foot pull-ups. Make him run the second and third pick-and-roll to snake his favorite spots. Plop Adams two steps closer to the color. The interception of Rubio is self-destructive if you are either wild or not at all spinning the game.
Anthony Gobert does not want to come across this clip above. Maybe he will accept Westbrook, in Ingles in the corner, it will do. Westbrook, who as always vacillates between inattention and misguided hyperactivity, does nothing. Maybe he had expected Anthony to do the work early. In the end nobody did it. That happened again and again. That's the kind of basic stuff – communication, schema, general coherence – you should work until Thanksgiving.
George was too Cavalier at Ingles – granted him too much space, provided he could close in time. He could not.
The thunder is good – much better than that. Let's hope they show it in Game 5.
In the Minnesota Houston series, Jeff Teague can not even give the ball to Karl-Anthony Towns. He is a less experienced, less adventurous passer-by than Rubio. He also plays with many non-shooters and against a smart defense. Again and again Towns pulled a switch, cut the middle and did not receive the ball. Commentators have complained of the death of Post Play.
You had a good reason after the first game. The cities had little trouble posting inappropriate. Since then he has adopted something of a mean kind. No unnecessary streak can help defenders get into the lap of the cities:
Posting in the middle of the color is trickier than it looks – even if Towns had tried to plow Eric Gordon under the edge, like favors with Westbrook did. (Maybe he should have tried too?) Bigs have to go in and out. Help defenders lurk from all sides. The greatest of them – especially Father J. Tucker – have seized the opportunity to drive little boys out of office and take over cities. Houston has taken chances to run a second switch and rescue smaller guards from the block.
That's why the wolves have shifted more of their two-man offense to one side of the ground in the past few games – and put the other three guys on the opposite side:
You get the same switch, and Teague has a cleaner pass. It's good! The trade-off is that it is much easier for Houston to send aid towards cities without leaving a dangerous gunman open; The three Timber Wolves on the weak side are so close together, two Rockets can patrol them.
And the wolves do not have many dangerous shooters, even if they play with Jimmy Butler in power forward. Butler gave Towns an exit in a game in Game 3 by sneaking along the baseline and banging in the corner on Town's side, but we have not seen this type of brain movement ever since.
• Butler and Andrew Wiggins face the same problems when posting on the wing – something that Minnesota may want to try a little more, given Houston plays three-guard lineups and changes a lot. The wolves can disproport butler and wiggins whenever they want. If Ryan Anderson is around, they can hunt him the same way – though he's better at keeping wings off him.
Post-ups can beat switches – in smart cans. You need to mix motion sets, predictive cuts, and slipped screens. Minnesota has shown insights, but it's not in its DNA. The Rockets were wise at mixing conventional defenses to disrupt Minnesota.
• Houston turned into another offensive team in the second half. It was not just about making or missing the same footage, though there were a few of them. The process was different, better, more diverse. The first half showed a lot of James Harden:
That's 12 seconds of uncontrolled dribbling followed by a step-back 3 pointer over Wiggins. That was good all season. The math says Harden isolates himself and getting a triple out of him is a good shot.
But Houston is the hardest to test the limits of this math. Wiggins on Harden one-to-one is not a discrepancy. Against cities? Dance away, James. He will either plunge into the breathing room for this triple, or toast toast Towns from the bounce, get help, and kick a shooter
This type of shot – without movement, against an equal defenseman who can hang – is so close at the landing like Houston. Harden has settled in the first half of Game 4. The math could say that each of these shots is a good one. Together, they have messed up the rockets of their elan. Others have to feel the ball.
Houston slows the pace over the course of the season. You can understand the temptation of playing a one-on-one ball here. Minnesota thwarted Houston's pick-and-roll attack by recreating the Spurs fixture from last season's playoffs: Park Towns on the edge, Shooter at home, and Harden and Paul join Floaters. But the wolves do not have the discipline of Minnesota. The cities are still learning. His teammates continue to dodge the shooters than Gregg Popovich would allow. Rummage and someone will jump up.
• In their best form, the Rockets mix in fast breaks, treble at 19 on the shot clock and semi-scripted play with more meat to them. Even the Rockets need to have good defenses.
You rediscovered that balance in the third quarter. Chris Paul Bande bounced back and drove the pace. Houston jettisoned into a lot of set pieces like this – a double screen designed to move the action from one side to the other, and deliver Harden the ball in motion with a head start:
• Prod Minnesota's defense, and she will break. Teague was disappointing at the end, though he has found some success in the offensive against Paul. Even Butler lost himself insane in Game 4 under the screens. Houston won with something as simple as a sentry to make Jamal Crawford switch to Paul or Harden before the action began.
When Harden had found a great man upon him in this third quarter-orgy, he attacked instead of receding. Not every one-to-one battle is a kind of test site. You will not receive any points for the level of difficulty. Just roast a slower guy and put an end to it.
The Rockets beat Minnesota by playing a B-Minus / C-Plus game. In later rounds, they will need more of the urgency and zip they showed when they ran the Wolves off the ground in Game 4.