How Chris Paul, Thunder Guards Found Breathing Room vs. Rockets


Lugentz Dort's defense on James Harden emerged as a leading storyline following Oklahoma City's Game 3 win on Saturday, but the Thunder's offensive revival was the true catalyst for their fourth-quarter comeback. And a trio of familiar faces once again led the way. 

The Thunder's three-guard lineup entered the 2020 playoffs as one of the most dynamic units in basketball, with Oklahoma City outscoring teams by 28.6 points per 100 possessions when Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder shared the floor. Yet one of the most dominant trios in basketball was completely bottled in the first two games against the Rockets. Game 1 featured a combined 34 points on 35 shots from the three guards. Gilgeous-Alexander bounced back in Game 2, but Paul once again found little breathing room, finishing the night with a minus-36 in 37 minutes. Paul's revenge tour appeared to be non-existent as the Rockets seized a 2–0 lead in commanding fashion.

Oklahoma City flipped the script in Game 3. Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder combined for 78 points on 49 percent shooting, returning to form against Houston's collection of wings. Paul scored eight points in the final minute of regulation and overtime. Schroder beat his way to the rim en route to five layups. How did the Thunder finally shake loose of the Rockets? A few simple tweaks helped reshape the series. 

One adjustment for the Thunder in Game 3 applied to their roster as a whole. Oklahoma City was stuck in mud for much of the series' first two games, generating just two fast-break points in Game 1 and five in Game 2. Paul and Co. were too content to trade half-court sets, milking the shot clock time and again. The Thunder aren't exactly the speediest team in the league, but the lack of any notable pace seemed to fuel the offensive drought. Oklahoma City couldn't find an advantage on switches. It hoisted plenty of bad looks late in the shot clock. What had been a humming engine seriously stalled.

Paul and the Thunder increased the pace in Game 3. They scored 22 points off Houston turnovers as they won the transition battle, and perhaps more importantly, Oklahoma City stressed urgency getting into its offensive sets. The Rockets' switch-everything defense presents opportunities for isolation attacks, but with no true weak link, the first switch may not yield an advantageous situation. The earlier the possession truly begins, the more chances Oklahoma City has to engineer a quality isolation matchup. We saw far better forays into the lane in Game 3.

"They were aggressive and attacked more than the first two games," Rockets center Jeff Green said postgame. "We allowed that one to get away from us, but it started on the defensive end."

There was also an adjustment in Oklahoma City's pick-and-roll possessions. The Thunder are now setting screens for their guards far above the three-point line, allowing Gilgeous-Alexander, Schroder and (most importantly) Paul to get a full head of steam as they approach their new defender. Paul failed to get any separation in the series' first 96 minutes, with long arms and cramped quarters hindering his ability to score. The high screen both opened up the floor and allowed Paul to gain momentum as he burrowed near the lane. Expect the possession below to be replicated time-and-again on Monday.

The Thunder unlocked a dynamic part of their offense on Saturday night, and frankly, it was a bit naive to assume they would go the whole series without finding some semblance of a rhythm. Paul remains perhaps the game's smartest player even in his advanced age. Gilgeous-Alexander is a franchise building block, while Schroder could win Sixth Man of the Year. Oklahoma City is not lacking in firepower, armed with plenty of dangerous weapons off the bounce. The Rockets' on-ball defense could define Game 4 on Monday afternoon.