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What the Thunder and Wolves need to do to survive

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Nichols: Don't be surprised by Jazz (3:34)

Rachel Nichols is impressed by Utah's ability to zone in on getting the job done as a team through four games against Oklahoma City. (3:34)

They were so similar, it was irresistible -- two plays that encapsulated so much about two series that might end tonight, and about the swing Game 4s that got us here:

Two pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor, two switches, two very different results. In Utah, Ricky Rubio lofted an entry pass to Derrick Favors, who trucked a foul-plagued Russell Westbrook.

Favors has outplayed Carmelo Anthony in a bellwether matchup. His offensive rebounding kept Utah in touch during Game 2. He has chased Anthony around the perimeter, patrolled the paint when taking over at center, and produced just enough offense. His return to health has been an underrated part of Utah's second-half surge -- and piqued interest among free agency suitors.

Utah's starting five has dominated; it is plus-40 in 92 minutes with the Rudy Gobert-Favors tandem on the floor. When the Jazz can score in their twin towers alignment, they generally win. The Thunder may not have believed it 10 days ago -- they seem almost offended Joe Ingles dared to stand up to them -- but the Jazz are real.

• Oklahoma City came unglued in the middle of Game 4. It was jarring. That is what is so great about the playoffs. Stakes are high. The atmosphere is heated. It tests teams. Whatever fissures exist, whatever bad habits teams use as crutches when things get tight, the playoffs expose them.

Oklahoma City spent most of the middle portion of Game 4 running as dull an offense as you will see in the NBA outside the tank brigade. What is this?

• Westbrook has been a disaster. Perhaps he and Steven Adams are more injured than they are letting on. The Thunder have scored just 0.8 points per possession any time Westbrook shoots directly out of a pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who shoots right away, per Second Spectrum data. And, umm, Westbrook enjoys doing those things.

Gobert has evicted Westbrook from the paint. As Zach Harper noted, Westbrook is getting to the rim less than usual, and relying more on his midrange jumper. That was a predictable outcome; it happened against Utah in the regular season, too.

When Westbrook has challenged Gobert, it generally has gone poorly for him. For the first time in Game 4, you could see Westbrook become a little unnerved. On a couple of plays, he turned the corner with Adams flanking him, gathered the ball to do something, and suddenly realized he had no good options. Gobert is the very best in the league at covering two players at once. What is Westbrook supposed to do here?

Against a lot of teams, Westbrook takes this to the rack, or hits Adams with a lob. On Monday, he jumped, discovered he couldn't do either, nearly went up and down, and shot-putted a stomach pass to Anthony. (He has fooled Gobert a few times by slowing down as if he were going to launch a floater, drawing Gobert out just a bit, and lobbing to Adams.)

• Oklahoma City has tried to adjust by running some of the offense through Paul George, a better pull-up 3-point shooter -- good enough to yank Gobert out of his comfort zone. He won them Game 1. Gobert has ventured out farther since, and the on-ball defense from Ingles, Royce O'Neale, Jae Crowder, and others has been tighter. Favors has been game to meet George at the arc.

Utah has snuffed a lot of the Westbrook-George two-man stuff since Game 2 by slotting Donovan Mitchell onto Westbrook, hiding Rubio on Corey Brewer, and switching more -- a smart adjustment.

• Meanwhile, Anthony is shooting 37 percent, and just 6-of-26 from deep. He has harmed backboards. There is very little place in any functional offense for this shot:

One pass, one long 2. That was Oklahoma City's formula as it unraveled in Game 4. Utah passed and cut its way into open 3s. The Jazz played to their identity. The Thunder stood around and relied on star power for long 2s. They reverted to the identity they have battled off and on to shed for a long time now. The Thunder lost in terms of both style and math.

Anthony provides negative value on defense. The Jazz know they can get a workable shot anytime by hunting him in the pick-and-roll. It hasn't produced a bundle of points, per Second Spectrum, but it's a nice failsafe. It doesn't work as well with Rubio; the Thunder are rightfully confident they can switch Melo onto Rubio. Mitchell is a different story.

• Oklahoma City doesn't have a ton of options beyond playing better. Outside its starting five, Billy Donovan -- and by the way, do we have any idea yet what Donovan stands for as an NBA coach? -- trusts only Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant, and Alex Abrines. Only Grant has really impacted the series. He has been better than Anthony, frankly.

Donovan has tried using Patterson as a small-ball center -- without either Grant or Adams on the floor -- more than in the regular season as a way to stretch Gobert to his breaking point. It hasn't worked. Patterson needs a long time to get his shot off -- enough for Gobert to recover on pick-and-pops. He hasn't done much damage off the dribble. Oklahoma City has gotten more traction with these groups by spreading the floor and just letting Westbrook attack one-on-one into open space.

Donovan is using those Patterson-at-center lineups because it is harder in the postseason to work around playing three below-average 3-point shooters at once. That is the structure of Oklahoma City's starting five, or the giant lineup Donovan turned to in Game 4, with Grant in Corey Brewer's place. With Andre Roberson, the Thunder could at least count on hounding defense from their so-so shooting lineups.

• They collapsed on that end in the third quarter of Game 4. It was embarrassing. Gobert feasted on some of his easiest rim runs of the season:

The Thunder keep corralling Rubio up high as if he is a threat to pull up from deep. Rubio appears to have made a leap into competence as a jump shooter. He can hit enough open spot-up 3s now. His midrange leaner is money. The Thunder pride themselves on aggressive, swarming defense; they forced more turnovers than anyone in the regular season.

At some point, you have to adjust. Duck some Rubio screens, and dare him to shoot pull-ups from 18 and 20 feet. Force him to run second and third pick-and-rolls to meander into his sweet spots. Plop Adams two steps closer to the paint. Trapping Rubio is self-defeating if you are going to rotate either wildly or not at all behind the play.

In that clip above, Anthony doesn't bother bumping Gobert. Perhaps he assumes Westbrook, on Ingles in the corner, will do it. Westbrook, vacillating as usual on defense between inattention and misguided hyperactivity, does nothing. Perhaps he expected Anthony to do the work early. In the end, nobody did. This happened again and again. This is the kind of basic stuff -- communication, scheme, general coherence -- you are supposed to work out by Thanksgiving.

George was too cavalier on Ingles -- granting him too much space, assuming he could close in time. He couldn't.

The Thunder are good -- way better than this. Let's hope they show it in Game 5.


Over in the Minnesota-Houston series, Jeff Teague can't even enter the ball to Karl-Anthony Towns. He's a less skilled, less adventurous passer than Rubio. He's also playing with a lot of non-shooters, and against a smart defense. Over and over, Towns has drawn a switch, cut down the middle, and not received the ball. Commentators have bemoaned the death of post play.

They had good reason after Game 1. Towns barely bothered trying to post up mismatches. He has embraced something of a mean streak since. No mean streak can make up for help defenders parking themselves in Towns' lap:

Posting up in the middle of the paint is trickier than it looks -- even if Towns had tried to plow Eric Gordon under the rim, as Favors did with Westbrook. (Maybe he should have tried, though?) Bigs have to get in and get out. Help defenders lurk from all sides. The biggest among them -- P.J. Tucker especially -- have seized chances to tag little guys out of the post, and take on Towns. Houston has seized chances to execute a second switch, and rescue smaller guards from the block.

That is why over the last couple of games, the Wolves have moved more of their two-man offense to one side of the floor -- and cleared the three other guys to the opposite side:

They get the same switch, and Teague has a cleaner entry pass. That's good! The tradeoff is that it's much easier for Houston to send help toward Towns without leaving a dangerous shooter open; the three Timberwolves on the weak side are so close together, two Rockets can patrol them.

And the Wolves don't have a lot of dangerous shooters to begin with -- even while playing smaller lineups with Jimmy Butler at power forward. Butler gave Towns an outlet on one play in Game 3 by sneaking along the baseline and popping in the corner on Towns side, but we haven't seen that type of brainy movement since.

• Butler and Andrew Wiggins face the same issues when they post up on the wing -- something Minnesota may want to try a little more, given Houston is playing three-guard lineups and switching a lot. The Wolves can get Butler and Wiggins a mismatch whenever they want. When Ryan Anderson is in, they can prey on him the same way -- though he has improved at keeping wings in front of him.

Post-ups can beat switches -- in smart doses. You have to mix in motion sets, anticipatory cuts, and slipped screens. Minnesota has shown glimpses of that, but it is not in its DNA. The Rockets have been smart about mixing in conventional defenses to keep Minnesota off balance.

• Houston, meanwhile, transformed into a different offensive team in its second-half explosion Monday night. It was not only a matter of making or missing the same shots, though there was some of that. The process was different, better, more varied. The first half featured a lot of this from James Harden:

That is 12 seconds of desultory dribbling followed by a step-back 3-pointer over Wiggins. That has been a good shot all season. The math says Harden isolating, and jacking a triple out of it, is a good shot.

But Houston at its most sluggish tests the limits of that math. Wiggins on Harden one-on-one is not a mismatch. Against Towns? Dance away, James. He'll either juke his way into more breathing room for that triple, or toast Towns off the bounce, draw help, and kick to a shooter.

This kind of shot -- with no movement, against a like-sized defender who can hang -- is as close to settling as Houston gets. Harden settled in the first half of Game 4. The math might say every one of those shots is a good one. Compounded, they sapped the Rockets of their verve. Other guys need to feel the ball.

Houston slowed the pace as the season went on. You can understand the temptation to play one-on-one ball here. Minnesota has frustrated Houston's pick-and-roll attack by aping the Spurs' game plan from last season's playoffs: park Towns near the rim, stay home on shooters, and invite Harden and Paul to try floaters. But the Wolves don't have San Antonio's discipline. Towns is still learning. His teammates stray further from shooters than Gregg Popovich would allow. Poke around, and someone will pop open.

• At their best, the Rockets mix in fast breaks, triples with 19 on the shot clock, and semi-scripted plays with more meat to them. Even the Rockets need to keep good defenses guessing.

They rediscovered that balance in the third quarter. Chris Paul gang rebounded and pushed the pace. Houston jetted into a lot of set pieces like this -- a double screen designed to move the action from one side to the other, and deliver Harden the ball on the move with a head start:

• Prod Minnesota's defense, and it will break. Teague has been disappointing on that end, though he has found some success scooting around Paul one-on-one on offense. Even Butler weirdly got lost under screens in Game 4. Houston gained ground with something as simple as a guard-guard pick designed to get Jamal Crawford switched onto Paul or Harden before the real action commenced.

When Harden found a big man on him in that third-quarter orgy, he attacked instead of stepping back. Not every one-on-one battle is some sort of proving ground. You get no points for degree of difficulty. Just roast a slower dude and be done with it.

The Rockets can beat Minnesota playing a B-minus/C-plus game. In later rounds, they'll need more of the urgency and zip they showed in running the Wolves off the floor in Game 4.