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Moore’s Angles: Picks & Predictions for Thunder vs. Rockets Game 5 (Wednesday, August 26)

Moore’s Angles: Picks & Predictions for Thunder vs. Rockets Game 5 (Wednesday, August 26) article feature image

Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images. Pictured: Chris Paul #3 and Dennis Schroder #17 of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The 2020 NBA postseason resumes after a three-day suspension in play during the players’ boycott of Wednesday’s games. Here are my angles for Saturday’s crucial Game 5 matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets.

Angle: Oklahoma City has more range under its ceiling.

This is not the sharp play, gonna put that out there immediately. The line has moved from an open of Rockets -2 to Rockets -3. The majority of the tickets (73%) and the money (93%!) are on the Rockets.

I’m going the other way.

Houston looked to be in firm control of this series, and nearly took Game 3, but the Thunder edged them in the end. The tide has most definitely turned but a few things give credence to the idea that this isn’t a stalemate.

In the first two games of the series, Houston turned the ball over less than 7.5% of the time. That’s compared to its regular-season mark of 14%, which is closer to its 13.9% mark in both Games 3 and 4.

Houston is always vulnerable to swings in variance due to how many 3-pointers they put up. They shot just 30% in Game 3, after shooting 38.5% from three in Game 1. But in Game 4, they shot 39.7% from three … and still lost.

The first two games of this series seemed like the revelation of a new Rockets team, defensively minded. They held OKC to offensive ratings of 109.1 and 104.3. But those numbers were surprising. The Thunder were stocked with shooters that could score 1-on-1 vs. the Rockets switching defense. Why couldn’t they suddenly score vs. the small-ball switch-all team?

Then, the Thunder three-guard lineup showed up.

Shai Gilgeous Alexander, Chris Paul & Dennis Schröder:

  • Game 1: 12 for 34, 35.3%
  • Game 2: 20 for 44, 45.5%
  • Game 3: 30 for 61, 49.2%
  • Game 4: 27 for 52, 51.9%

Note not just the field-goal percentage increasing, but the number of shots. The Thunder in Games 1 and 2 were trying to run their normal offense, which is difficult against Houston’s switch-all. But starting in Game 3, they stopped trying to figure it out and just started attacking.

The Rockets are so bold in their approach they put PJ Tucker on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, enabling him to switch onto a big if SGA used a screen. But SGA doesn’t use one here. He just takes Tucker off the dribble:

The Rockets’ entire approach is built to force contested mid-range jumpers. Funny story: among players to average at least four mid-range shots per game this season, Chris Paul shot the best percentage in the league: 54%.

Chris Paul took two mid-range shots in Game 1, and five in Game 2. In Games 3 and 4 he shot 8 and 9 respectively.

What I am telling you is that the Thunder are getting better and better at playing the Rockets defense, and if Houston’s defense doesn’t hold, its offense isn’t consistent enough (especially with Lu Dort bugging Harden) to maintain the pace it needs.

Starting with Game 3, Billy Donovan began using the three-headed dragon lineup of Paul, Schröder and SGA alongside Danilo Gallinari, and benching Steven Adams for Dort. Those lineups are +16 in 11 minutes across the two games.

This is a dangerous trend for Houston. The Thunder are finding ways to play better small ball than they are.

Meanwhile, Jeff Green is coming back down to earth, after scoring 15 or more points in the first three games, and shooting 55% or better from the field. Green can still have a game, but his odds of staying at that frequency are low.

The Rockets have areas of positive regression as well. Eric Gordon has been wretched in this series and will improve on his 5-of-22 shooting on spot-ups. But Danuel House has been a revelation, shooting 11-of-22 on spot-ups. The Rockets offense has a 112 offensive rating with House on the floor. That’s likely to dip.

The broad strokes image is that the Thunder offense has underperformed early in the series and started to hum at an expected frequency later, and the Rockets offense is largely subject to its usual surges and droughts.

Russell Westbrook’s presence looms in this series, and he’s currently listed as out for Game 5. As long as Westbrook is out, the Thunder are finding better ways to counter Houston. Houston’s options are limited. Mike D’Antoni plays an 8-man rotation and won’t deviate at this stage.

The Thunder are low on shooters; Dort continues to struggle from three, Andre Roberson has (sadly) proven unplayable and Darius Bazely is inconsistent both from the field and in minutes. But the three guards and Gallinari are enough offense to take advantage of the switch-all now that they’re comfortable with it, and it’s unlikely Houston throws any wrinkles into it.

The value is on both the Thunder and their team total over at 111.5 for Game 5.

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