Thunder: 3 Areas For Improvement From Game 1

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) looks up during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) looks up during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In losing Game 1 on Sunday, the Oklahoma City Thunder left much to be desired in their own play. They’ll have to tighten up if they hope to compete with the Houston Rockets.

In the first round of what has been titled the “MVP Bowl,” James Harden and the Houston Rockets emerged victorious 118-87. Capitalizing on a 59-33 advantage in the second half, the Rockets’ attack eventually wore down the Oklahoma City Thunder defense on a night the Thunder simply couldn’t keep up on the scoreboard.

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan will certainly have plenty of ammo in the film session on Game 1, starting with the lack of execution in things that the Thunder have done all year.

The Rockets didn’t even shoot well from deep, going 10-for-33 on the evening, a far cry from what they’re capable of.

Because Oklahoma City was so terrified of the long ball (as many teams have been against Houston), it opened up gaping driving lanes for Harden and drop-off opportunities for Clint Capela, Nene Hilario and others.

The game also exposed certain players on the Thunder roster that have played pivotal roles in getting Oklahoma City here. Donovan certainly has his hands full going into Game 2. Here are three adjustments that must be made if the Thunder are to succeed in this series.

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball around Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) during the third quarter in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Pick And Roll Defense

OK, this one was apparent from the tip. Once it was clear that the Thunder were going to switch all on-ball screens with Harden, everyone in the building knew it would be a steady diet of exposing Steven Adams and poor, poor Enes Kanter.

Andre Roberson did a tremendous job on Harden when he was guarding “The Beard.” The problem was, that wasn’t a whole lot. Particularly in the third quarter, when Houston really distanced themselves from Oklahoma City.

As it was clear Harden was going to carve up Adams and (to a lesser extent) Taj Gibson, I thought, “Oh please, do not put Kanter in.” Well, it happened and Oklahoma City’s worst nightmare became a reality.

It was abundantly clear at that point if this was going be the Thunder’s game plan, Kanter could not be on the floor when Harden is (which is 36-40 minutes per night).

TNT even caught Donovan saying what everyone watching was thinking to assistant coach Maurice Cheeks.

The Thunder most adopt a new strategy going forward to keep Roberson on Harden as much as possible. He and Victor Oladipo are the only players on the roster that stand a chance of staying in front of Harden for prolonged stretches.

Either that, or play hyperactive and switchy Jerami Grant, but that comes with its own set of problems on the offensive end and leaves another frontcourt spot open to one of Oklahoma City’s slow-footed bigs.

The definition of insanity is doing something again and again and expecting a different result.

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dribbles the ball during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Weaponize The Backcourt

When your top two offensive options go 7-for-35, you’re not going to win many games. That’s what Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo were from the field against the Rockets in Game 1. It has to be the worst night the duo can have if the Thunder hope to prevail in this series.

The night was so bad even a career night from Andre Roberson with 18 points and 4-for-6 from the 3-point line barely made a dent in the loss.

Wherever Westbrook went, Patrick Beverley followed — even mimicked at certain points.

Beverley forced Westbrook into a 6-for-23 evening from the field with nine turnovers. Make no mistake that everywhere Westbrook turned, there was a Rocket to meet him, with Beverley not far behind.

Oladipo was unable to relieve any of the pressure on Westbrook, going 1-for-12 from the field with Harden guarding him most of the evening. Oladipo’s first playoff game was a gigantic flop as a second option.

He was invisible most of the night and when he did shoot, he didn’t do it confidently. Oklahoma City will need Oladipo to play well if they hope to move ahead.

Westbrook needs to make a concerted effort to get Oladipo involved early and often and get him feeling comfortable. Oladipo has proved to need to be in the flow of the offense to feel comfortable, as is with the case with most perimeter players.

He never looked completely into the game, particularly on the offensive end. That’s concerning and needs to change going forward.

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) attempts to score during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Win The Rebounding Battle

The NBA’s top rebounding team was outrebounded 56-41 in Game 1. A point of strength became a glaring weakness, including giving up 14 offensive rebounds.

It became clear that Houston was able to hunt down every long rebound, while Oklahoma City was standing under the rim, waiting for the ball to drop within the restricted area. One of the oldest adages of basketball is “long shots, long rebounds.”

Attempting the most 3-pointers per game has taught the Rockets to prepare to chase down those long rebounds and they excelled at doing just that.

It was also clear that Adams, Gibson and Kanter were disoriented and uncomfortable finding themselves away from the rim so often, forced to stretch out on the defensive side guarding snipers such as Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and being forced to switch onto Harden.

The Thunder’s trio are traditional bruisers that like to mix it up in the paint and the opportunities to do that were few and far between Sunday night.

That Patrick Beverley out-rebounded the combined output Adams, Kanter and Gibson tells you all you need to know.

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