Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan is a good coach. At least a majority of the NBA’s head coaches think he’s one of the best two this season.
Donovan is affectionately known as a “tinkerer”. Like an inventor or mechanical engineer testing every material possible to find a solution to a problem, Billy implores countless roster combinations throughout the regular season in order to find what works and why. The OKC coach’s latest problem to solve is a gimmick of a system, trotted out by Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets — the ultimate “Small-Ball” lineup.
Call it whatever you want — the Oklahoma City Thunder got punched in the mouth in the first game of their playoff series with Houston. The boys in blue got beat in every meaningful statistical category outside of rebounds (which isn’t saying much since Houston’s small-ball lineup was literally outsized at every position other than point guard). Houston shot better, passed better, forced more turnovers, and most importantly — schematically disassembled the Thunder from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
Game 1 of the Thunder/Rockets was the first time Oklahoma City faced off with Houston’s small-ball lineup that was completed with a February 5 trade that sent out both of Houston’s playable centers (Clint Capela and Nene) in return for the 6’7″ Robert Covington — became the tallest player on the team to consistently see the floor. The trade screamed resemblances of Billy Bean’s fabled trade of Carlos Pena that left Oakland skipper Art Howe with no option other than playing Bean’s guy, Scott Hatteberg at 1st base.
In Game 1 of the series, it worked.
With no true centers clogging the paint for the Rockets, the team experiences a unique schematic opportunity to play a true 5-out offense featuring five reliable 3-point shooters, which in-turn creates unimaginable space for driving lanes. When the Rockets’ 3-pointers are falling there is seemingly very little opposing teams can do to slow them down. For example, they made 20-of-51 (38.5%) in Game 1 and won by 15 points.
On the defensive end of the court, the Rockets impose a lanky, in-your-face, switch everything perimeter defense. To go along with the perimeter scheme, the team pairs a triple-team/paint-clogging system to make up for their lack of size on the interior.
As one can imagine, this unorthodox system of play can be quite alarming for a team the first time they see it. Oklahoma City is in luck, however, because they have a coach that has faced similar problems in his 5-year stint with the ball club.
In their 2016 playoff run Oklahoma City faced two schematic obstacles they needed to overcome. The first issue was a 2nd round matchup with a San Antonio Spurs team featuring stars Tim Duncan and LeMarcus Aldridge. The duo dominated the interior while also grabbing every rebound in sight. Donovan rolled with a 2-center “Stache-Brothers” lineup of both Enes Kanter and Steven Adams which neutralized the Spurs’ greatest strength and lead to OKC winning the series.
The following series the Thunder faced the “Death Lineup” of the Golden State Warriors, a lineup that decimated all foes in its path en-route to an NBA record 73-win regular season. Early in the series it became abundantly clear the lineup the Thunder implemented in the Spurs series would be impossible to use in the current one. Billy Donovan once again was ready to tinker and take on the “death lineup” head-on.
Donovan’s primary moves to neutralize the Warriors put Adams in the pick-n-roll, which resulted in multiple lobs to the rim against the Warriors’ undersized defenders. The second was the roll-out of OKC’s own small-ball lineup that featured Serge Ibaka at the center position.
With Donovan’s coaching moves the Thunder got as close to the Finals as a 3-1 series lead. We all know how the series ended, but the blame rested primarily on the shoulders of star players wilting in big moments, rather than coaching schematics.
NBA playoff series are often compared to chess matches. Coaching staffs and players alike on both sides see what moves the opponent makes and then adjust accordingly. As it currently stands, the series sits at 1-0 Rockets’ lead, however it is long from over. It is no secret Oklahoma City has great chess players at both coach and captain.
Expect Donovan to come out with multiple adjustments for Game 2 in both scheme and personnel, and expect Chris Paul to ensure they are run properly. This is another opportunity for Donovan to show how good of a coach he really is, and even potentially earn more on the contract extension he is expected to be offered in the upcoming off-season.