Thunder's shooting under the microscope ... again
PORTLAND, Ore. – Like many of the questions about the Thunder’s future in this playoff series against the Blazers, this question was about Paul George’s ailing right shoulder. It made Thunder coach Billy Donovan momentarily chuckle, not because the question was absurd, but because of what it meant.
The question was perfectly valid. A world not used to seeing George get his shot swatted saw it happen four times in a 104-99 Game 1 loss to the Blazers.
What does George getting his shot blocked that many times say about the lift he’s able to produce with that sore shoulder?
"It means a lot of people are on him," Donovan said while chuckling.
"We’ve got to keep moving the ball and he’s obviously a great player and teams are going to send a lot of help to him because he’s a hard guy to guard."
If there’s attention on George, it means there isn’t attention elsewhere. The question is can the Thunder come through when called upon to make shots?
In Game 1 against Portland, they didn’t come through. Russell Westbrook, Jerami Grant and Dennis Schroder were a combined 0-of-14 from 3-point range. At junctures this season, they have delivered. Schroder leveled off to 34 percent from 3, but was red-hot for two months and the end of the season. Grant has been an above-average 3-point shooter (39.2 percent) all season. Even Westbrook has had moments in between being the worst high-volume 3-point shooter in the league (29 percent).
Schroder bristled when asked about the Thunder’s 3-point shooting at Tuesday morning’s shootaround, but was happy to answer about what he needs to do as the point guard in the pick-and-roll.
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"We’ve just got to make them pay when they’re in a drop coverage," Schroder said, specifically about Portland’s Enes Kanter being dropped deep, the Blazers protecting Kanter from getting burned in space. "We’ve just got to be aggressive, try to attack him. Me, P (George) and Russ, we’ve just got to do a better job of attacking him."
The Thunder’s problem wasn’t attacking Kanter, however, in Game 1. The Thunder scored 52 points in the paint. When OKC didn’t get directly to the rim – Kanter pushed up higher to stop penetration –Schroder pulled up for clean jump shots with Kanter caught in no-man’s land. When Kanter stayed hugged to Steven Adams on Westbrook drives, Westbrook walked into layups.
The 2-pointers weren’t the issue, as Schroder and Westbrook combined to shoot 13-of-23 on non-3-point shots.
The problem was from 3. From Westbrook to Schroder, it’s a reoccurring theme for the Thunder’s guards: An inability to shoot the 3-pointer with proficiency. The deficiency makes for a slim margin of error, as it requires the two to compensate with exemplary shooting percentages from inside the arc, and for the Thunder to nullify the opposition’s 3-point shooting.
Outside of the first quarter, the Thunder did that in Game 1. They’ve had to all season.
"I’m not going to sit here and use that as an excuse, that we missed some shots and therefore we got down," Donovan said. "That’s been something we’ve dealt with all year long. It hasn’t been something that just popped up the other night.
"The biggest thing for us is maintaining a focus and a concentration on the next play on what we can control."
What the Thunder can control is its shot selection. Thus, the conundrum it faces.
Donovan has encouraged the Thunder to take open 3-point shots.
The opposition is OK with the Thunder taking those open 3-point shots.
The Thunder isn’t particularly good at making those open 3-point shots.
"You’re going to have to keep the defense honest at some point," Donovan said when asked if the Thunder should pass up those open 3-pointers for another shot. "If people are not guarding you, you’re left wide open, you’re going to have to keep the defense honest.
"I’ve seen Dennis before where he hasn’t shot the ball particularly well in a half, and I’ve seen him come out and have incredible third and fourth quarters. I think to take away a player’s confidence like that and say, ‘Look, tonight you’ve missed three or four in a row. Stop shooting those open shots,’ I don’t think as a coach I’d be giving those guys very much confidence and they probably would sense really not a lot of belief."
If Westbrook, Grant and Schroder each make one 3-pointer in Game 1 – or if George shoots better than 4-of-15 from 3. Portland wasn’t happy with the amount of attempts he received – Donovan’s faith is justified.
Instead, the questions about George’s shoulder still haunted Tuesday. Those questions won’t haunt as much if the Thunder can score more proficiently.
"I think if Dennis is open like that and Jerami is open, those guys have proven they can make that shot," Donovan said. "These are not two guys that are shooting 22 percent. High quality shots are really hard to come by in the playoffs when you see a team over and over. When you get some good ones, I think you’ve got to take them."
For coverage of Game 2 of the NBA playoffs between the Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers, go to oklahoman.com/sportspage.