Earlier this year, I asked a Western Conference scout what his biggest concern with the Thunder would be come playoff time. Shooting, he said. His reasoning was that outside of Paul George, the Thunder don’t really have any truly reliable shooters to stretch the floor, and thus all their isolation sets and head-down rim attacks become all the more difficult in congestion. Two things on that:
- It’s true
- Sometimes, Paul George is all you need
George was in his own world in the Thunder’s Game 1 win over Utah, ripping off eight 3-pointers, on 11 attempts, en route to 36 points as all the intrigue of OKC’s peak powers came to fruition. Westbrook was pretty good, if not terribly efficient. Melo was good. The defense was sound. But George was just lights out, and whatever deficiencies the Thunder might have, when George is cooking like that, nothing else matters. When he’s cooking like that and they’re playing pretty well as a team on top of it? Forget about it. The Thunder can beat anyone.
And as usual, Paul’s impact wasn’t limited to the offensive side.
In a somewhat surprising move, Billy Donovan started George on Joe Ingles. Well, I suppose it wasn’t that surprising given that George and Ingles are a natural matchup from a positional standpoint, but if you’re Donovan, there had to be at least some temptation to put your best defender in George on Utah’s best player in Donovan Mitchell. But it worked out great because George all but erased Ingles, particularly early, and the Jazz, already a relatively limited offensive unit, just can’t score enough to hang with a hot-shooting OKC team when Mitchell is going at it largely alone. It was the classic “give the best player his points and shut everyone else down” approach, and it worked the way it’s supposed to.
Now, the other end of the court is where Utah typically makes its hay. They’ve been the best defensive team in the league by a mile since the All-Star break, largely because of the return of Rudy Gobert. But yet again, in this series, Gobert isn’t quite the monster that he normally is. Why? Well for one, the Thunder can keep him caught in between. George was snaking his way around the screens on pick-and-rolls rather than attacking in a straight line, and that keeps Gobert guessing as he retreats to the rim. Westbrook, meanwhile, always has the threat of that pretty deadly mid-range pull-up off the pick-and-roll, while the threat of him exploding to the rim keeps you from pressing up. Again, caught in between.
Throw in the fact that the Thunder have good length on the backside — namely Steven Adams and Jerami Grant — for potential put-backs or lobs that Gobert has to worry about, and now he has too many threats to thwart to be entirely sure of which one to prioritize. It’s just a tough cover for Gobert, and when the anchor of Utah’s defense isn’t entirely sure-footed, the tentacles of that Jazz defense don’t extend quite the same way. And then, boom, that little extra space on the perimeter is all George needs.
In many ways, George will be the main barometer of this OKC playoff run. You pretty much know what you’re going to get from Westbrook, who had 29 points on 25 shots to go with 13 boards and eight assists. Crazy as it sounds, that’s a pretty normal night for Russ. When he plays better than that, OKC is very tough. When he gets squirrelly, they get in trouble. But for the most part, Russ is Russ. Steven Adams is Steven Adams, which is to say a rock. Melo can go one way or the other with his 3-point shooting, but he’s not as involved as he was early in the year — the 15 points on 13 shots he posted on Sunday feels about right.
But George? He can take over not just a game, but a series. If he plays like this, Westbrook’s inefficiencies are covered for and his domination gets doubled. When George goes cold and Russ is left to do it on his own, OKC can’t play with the elite teams. That’s the difference between them and, say, the Rockets, who had a horrible night on Sunday as a team but still won on the strength of James Harden going into superhero mode. The Rockets, the Warriors, those teams can win even when they play bad. The Thunder don’t have that margin for error. They can’t play bad and still win, not against the really good teams at least, and probably not even against the Jazz.
But when they play like this, led by George? They can beat anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
Oh, and about this whole “Playoff P” thing: I have to be honest, I didn’t know that was an actual nickname for George. He told reporters the other day that they had yet to see “Playoff P,” but I’d never heard it before that. It seems Westbrook and Melo hadn’t either, as both of them looked utterly confused when they heard their teammate referred to as such in the postgame press conference. I don’t know if George made it up or what, but I’ll tell you this: When you make eight threes in a playoff game, you can call yourself anything you want.