SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz have been sending scouts to Oklahoma City's recent games, trying to figure out all of the in-and-out tendencies of the star-laden Thunder.
Here are four of the plays the scouts are likely to come back highlighting; four plays that if the Jazz can stop consistently, they'll likely win the series.
OKC's Hawk set
Remember the Jazz's matchup against the Thunder on Dec. 5? The Jazz had a 17-point lead in the third quarter before the Thunder came back slowly, but surely, to win the game by six.
This is the play they ran on nine out of 10 half-court possessions to finish off the game; the Thunder scored 15 points on those possessions. This was detailed by Cleaning The Glass' Ben Falk back in December, and he does a really nice job of showing off the play:
The Thunder have been going to a specific play in crunch time that uses all three of their stars at once. The other night they ran this Hawk set on 9 of their final 10 halfcourt possessions. I break it down in the latest Anatomy of a Play: https://t.co/eWjYnELXlgpic.twitter.com/MNOthUsz6J— Ben Falk (@bencfalk) December 7, 2017
As you can see, Carmelo Anthony literally makes a hawk wave with his arms. Then, Paul George makes a curling cut right across the free throw line, then down to the basket. Russell Westbrook has the option of driving to the rim, finding Anthony rolling to the rim or for a post-up, or finding George with an advantage on the wing after he curls through the defense.
In order to defend this well, the Jazz need to be smart about their matchups. The Thunder exploited this a few times in the Hawk in that game: once to get Anthony in the post against Joe Ingles (which resulted in an easy layup at the rim), and once to get George an easy jump shot over the top of Donovan Mitchell (he made it).
The Jazz need Mitchell in at the end of games, so it's likely he ends up guarding OKC's Corey Brewer or is even given the task of guarding Westbrook over guarding George. Don't be surprised if the Jazz end games with Royce O'Neale and Jae Crowder guarding George and Anthony.
Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams pick and roll
This is the Thunder at their most frightening.
Russell Westbrook/Steven Adams PnR is one of the plays the Jazz need to be most concerned about. Here Westbrook gets the and-one on Favs: pic.twitter.com/kGuFQoube8— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 13, 2018
Westbrook is an athletic freak, and he puts more pressure on the rim than any point guard in the NBA. He also has a money 15-foot pull-up jumper (what he calls his "cotton shot") that you can't just give up with impunity, either. That's why Favors stepped up in that last play.
But Steven Adams might be the league's strongest player, meaning that with him rolling to the rim, he's a force to be dealt with. Despite that strength, he's also surprisingly balletic with his rolls: he has some of the best hands for a big man in the league.
If you give too much attention to Westbrook, Adams will finish the play off, either by catching an alley-oop or by just getting the offensive rebound. Adams gets five offensive rebounds per game; only two players since 2000 have had a season that matches that (Andre Drummond and Anderson Varejao).
The best thing the Jazz can do is introduce indecision into Westbrook's mind, forcing him to make a pass that's not really there. In the below play, the Jazz clog up the paint with Favors and Jerebko, and then Mitchell does a great job at tracking back after the screen, staying with Adams, and getting the steal.
Here, though the Jazz can clog up the paint with Favors and Jerebko (thanks to Melo's positioning) and then Mitchell does a great job of getting back from the screen to intercept the pass: pic.twitter.com/kjlsAZPDzU— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 13, 2018
Westbrook can be turnover-prone if you show him different looks and make him make difficult passing plays. The Jazz will try to exploit that.
Screening the big man defender
Sometimes, though, the Thunder creatively figure out ways to take the big men defending the paint out of the play. Below, Adams goes up to set the screen, but Westbrook attacks the other direction. The Jazz seemingly have it corralled, except Andre Roberson (who won't play in the series due to injury) sets a screen on Gobert for Adams as he rolls back to the rim. The result is an easy layup.
Remember how I said the Thunder like to run the same concept over and over again until you can stop it? Here's an example: First, the Roberson sets a mid-paint screen on Gobert, freeing up Adams for the alley-oop: pic.twitter.com/OiKFJQ7DrS— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 13, 2018
On the very next play, the Thunder did a similar thing. Adams goes up to set the screen, but this time, Roberson's screen on Gobert is in the opposite direction, and Westbrook has the wide open jumper.
Very next play, Roberson sets the same screen, except the direction is flipped. This gives Westbrook the wide-open cotton shot: pic.twitter.com/eIwCgdYmRE— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 13, 2018
So after seeing the same thing twice, the Jazz signal to do something different: they're going to anticipate that Roberson screen and switch it. That means Ingles is the defender as Westbrook comes off the screen, but he's playing too low. Westbrook just stops, pops, and sinks the open three.
So then the Jazz try to figure it out, and switching the screen so Ingles is stopping Westbrook. It's okay if Gobert guards Roberson. But then Ingles doesn't go far enough out to stop Russ, and Quin is mad. pic.twitter.com/v6cGlSMWOd— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 13, 2018
You can see, Quin Snyder is mad on the sidelines. In fact, in the next timeout; as the broadcast goes to commercial, you can see Snyder and Ingles talking about what to do about it.
Look at Quin talking to Joe at the next timeout, talking about this play: pic.twitter.com/HMXcfDvAu0— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 13, 2018
That's something the Thunder do as much as any team in the league: They run one concept over and over again until you prove you can defend it.
Stopping the Thunder in transition
Westbrook could be the league's best transition attacker beyond LeBron James; no one is faster or more athletic from the point guard spot. In order to stop him, the Jazz will need to have at least three men back, and hopefully, that includes at least one big. That means that they'll want to avoid situations where Favors is stuck in the corner and Gobert is stuck under the rim.
But recent acquisition Brewer has also turned the Thunder's pace up. Brewer has made an NBA career on being a not-very-skilled player, but by running on every single transition play and being in the perfect spot. He's averaging 10 points per game with the Thunder, fully a third of those are in transition opportunities. The Jazz will need to watch him carefully as well.
If you can get the Thunder in late-shot-clock situations, they're much more vulnerable. They're last in the league in "late" shot clock situations, shooting just 38 percent when the shot clock has between 7 and 4 seconds left. In "very late" situations (less than 4 seconds left), they're 24th, shooting 33 percent. Stopping the Thunder from scoring early is paramount. Luckily for the Jazz, getting teams in long possessions is one of their strong suits.