Tramel: Fate of Thunder offense rests with Lu Dort
Lu Dort kept shooting Saturday night. Give the guy credit. He doesn’t get down on himself. At least not that anyone can see.
After two or three straight misses, Terrance Ferguson looks like he lost his puppy. Not Dort. He’s a steel-eyed stoic.
So Dort kept shooting. And kept missing.
A drive that Steven Adams tipped in. Back-to-back 3-point clunkers. A 3-point airball. Another 3-point miss, then a runner in the lane. Another 3-point miss.
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The game was not yet seven minutes old, and Dort was 0-of-7 from the field. A miss a minute.
The rest of the Thunder roster had combined for eight misses and OKC trailed 18-7.
Except for 90 seconds of Dennis Schroder brilliance in the second quarter, things rarely improved. Houston routed the Thunder 114-80 to take a 3-2 lead in this Western Conference playoff series.
Dort finished 3-of-16 shooting; that was more shots than not only any other Thunder, but any Rocket except Eric Gordon (17).
If that’s not enough to sober up Oklahomans, how about this. The tonic to win Game 6? Dort has to keep shooting.
Keep shooting or sit down, and who wants that, with James Harden on the loose and Dort the only bloodhound on his trail?
The masses want Dort to stop shooting. It’s not that simple. In 2020 NBA basketball, all perimeter players must be willing to shoot.
The game is predicated on space. Driving lanes are created by four players spread out like the Ponderosa, with defenders dutifully following, because of 3-point threats. If a defender doesn’t have to extend, it clogs the driving lanes.
The Rockets already have taken away OKC’s pick-and-roll offense, since Houston defenders just switch assignments rather than being screened. If the Thunder can’t drive one-on-one, and can’t pick-and-roll, just exactly what is left of its offense?
Saturday night, the Thunder shot 31.5 percent from the field. Made just seven of 46 3-point shots. Committed 18 turnovers. Offensive ineptitude of incredible depths.
The Rockets played a one-man zone. Whoever was guarding Dort, usually Harden, stayed near the basket and dared Dort to shoot.
The driving lanes for the Thunder guards thus were more packed than the pre-pandemic Broadway Extension at 5:15 p.m.
Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander combined for five baskets in the paint. The Thunder needs about 15 paint baskets a game out of that trio.
Meanwhile, a Rocket stayed body-glued to Danilo Gallinari, who missed all five of his shots and scored only a solitary point, courtesy of a technical foul.
That’s the kind of defense you can play when you ignore one of your opponents, and the Rockets treated Dort like he had body odor, unless he came into the lane.
Dort, a rookie defensive whiz, is no shooter. He made just 29.7 percent of his regular-season 3-point shots. In this series, he’s 5-of-32.
Until he becomes an acceptable outside shooter, Dort is a defensive specialist who will get exposed in a playoff series.
Houston played its cards Saturday night. Dort will be left free.
“I think part of his growth is understanding when to shoot some, when to drive some, when to pass some, and he probably had a mix of a lot of those in the game,” Billy Donovan said.
But Donovan knows a Dort drive is dangerous, because there’s no defender to drive past, and it’s not like Dort is a good ballhandler. And Donovan knows that passing is delaying the inevitable; Dort will just get the ball back, because the Rockets are tightly guarding Dort’s teammates, with Harden waiting to double team any driver.
Dort could dribble in and shoot a shorter jumper, but what’s the point? Dort this season has launched 248 shots. Only five were non-paint 2-pointers, and he missed all five.
It’s Donovan’s job to figure out for Game 6 how to make use of Dort’s space.
Dort usually is on the court with 7-foot center Steven Adams, another non-threat from the perimeter. Donovan experimented in small doses the previous two games with Dort in and Adams out. Worked well in Game 3 and Game 4. Not in Game 5. The Rockets outscored the lineup of Paul, SGA, Schroder, Gallinari and Dort 8-2 in little more than two minutes late in the second quarter.
Houston tends to get a lot of layups when Adams sits.
So Donovan has a Sophie’s Choice. Sit Adams and open the paint. Sit Dort and give Harden free range.
Or hope Dort makes an early 3-pointer or two. Make a couple of deep balls, and a defender will zip quickly to even the shakiest of shooters.
“Keep playing,” Paul said of Dort’s shooting. “Keep playing. It’s one game. Take the open shots when they’re there.”
Donovan will try to devise a scheme that doesn’t call for Dort to be open on the perimeter. The Thunder staff in the 2016 playoffs occasionally found ways to flourish with Adams and Andre Roberson on the court together. But still it was tough, and that was four years ago, when offenses were less stretched. Plus Donovan had a safety valve in Kevin Durant, who could produce a decent shot simply by jumping and launching from wherever he was.
In that regard, Gallinari is a poor-man’s Durant. The Thunder was virtually void of Gallinari post-ups in Game 5.
“I've got to try to find ways to kind of incorporate him and help him as much as I can,” Donovan said. “But a lot of it’s going to be found in the course of the game through movement, through ball movement and spacing.”
And Donovan came clean. This is a take-what-the-defense-gives-you series. There are no strategies to get Gallinari or SGA, Schroder or Paul, open shots when Houston’s defense acts like it’s playing five on four.
“We don't control that,” Donovan said. “Houston controls that. It's how they're guarding us. It's who they elect to come off and who they elect not to come off of. We've got to find the open man, and then the open man's got to make good decisions.”
Lu Dort is the open man. The weight of the Thunder defense has been on his broad shoulders in this series. Now he also carries the fate of the Thunder offense.