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The Thunder keep showing that their weaknesses are also their strengths

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

All season, the ascendent Oklahoma City Thunder profiled as an ahead-of-schedule championship contender with one glaring, potentially fatal flaw.

The Thunder have the style and reputation of a small team, even though they don't actually play any small players. Their guards have tremendous positional size, the shortest player in their rotation is 6-4, and their 7-1 rookie center Chet Holmgren is one of the best rim-protectors in the league. But they don't play any big fours, and Holmgren's in the same weight class as a lot of point guards, liable to get shoulder-checked out of the way by the bruising bigs of the world. As such, the Thunder ranked 29th in defensive rebound rate and 28th in offensive rebound rate during the regular season.

That didn't stop them from winning 57 games and snagging the West's No. 1 seed, because they ranked second in both offensive and defensive efficiency on first-shot half-court possessions. Their limitations are baked into their identity as a team that flies around and forces a ton of turnovers on defense while dancing circles around teams at the other end with their four-guard lineups, small-small pick-and-rolls, and relentless drive-and-kick attack.

One of the big curiosities coming into the postseason was whether the pros of that style could continue to outweigh the cons as the competition and physicality ramped up.

A pair of wins against a Pelicans team missing Zion Williamson doesn't necessarily constitute proof of concept, but clearing that first hurdle is still an important first step. A taut Game 1 that went down to the buzzer as the Thunder battled their own nerves and an army of pesky Pelicans perimeter defenders seemed to open the door to a competitive series. That feels less likely after OKC thoroughly dismantled New Orleans in Game 2 with a surgical, laser-focused performance.

Even in going down 2-0, the Pelicans showed that there's at least one tactical battleground on which they're capable of inflicting some pain. And you can basically view that battle through the lens of one player.

In Game 1, Jonas Valanciunas inhaled 20 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass. He opened Game 2 by bulldozing his way to 11 of the game's first 16 points. The 265-pound center is the exact type of bruiser built to exploit the limitations of the Thunder's front line, and the Pelicans are particularly reliant on his offense in light of Williamson's absence and Brandon Ingram's struggles since returning from a knee injury. Valanciunas finished the game with a team-high 19 points in just 22 minutes.

The issue is that Valanciunas isn't an especially mobile big, and that's something the Thunder are uniquely equipped to exploit. This is the trade-off they've been winning all year. It's how they were able to give up 31 rebounds to Jusuf Nurkic on March 3 and still beat the Suns by eight.

Holmgren can stretch Valanciunas out to the 3-point line or dust him off the bounce. And he did, repeatedly, en route to 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting with a plus-32 on-court rating in Game 2.


What's interesting is that the Pelicans kept giving Holmgren that advantageous matchup rather than cross-matching Valanciunas onto Josh Giddey or even Lu Dort and putting a switchier defender on Holmgren to neutralize the pick-and-pop game. We saw them do that a handful of times when these teams met during the regular season, with Trey Murphy usually getting the Holmgren assignment.

New Orleans isn't going to switch Valanciunas onto Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jalen Williams, and JV doesn't have much hope of recovering back out to Holmgren after dropping back against his ball screens. So the Pelicans have tried a different kind of coverage against those pick-and-pops, having a third defender rotate up from the weak side to take Holmgren while the rest of the defense shifts and Valanciunas flows to the corner.

That worked pretty well in Game 1, but it's far from a fail-safe. If the weak-side defender isn't hyperalert and rotating in a timely fashion, as Ingram wasn't in the GIF below on an early Game 2 possession, the coverage breaks down:


Even when the Pelicans did execute the coverage properly in Game 2, the Thunder were prepared to attack it with quick drives and crisp ball movement:


New Orleans had a brief run of success defending with Valanciunas at the back of a 2-3 zone, but that too eventually got solved. The Thunder are brimming with shooting and ball-handling skill, and will probably find a way to prod at Valanciunas' limitations no matter where he is. They've surely prepared for a scenario in which he guards Giddey, and will have lineup and schematic counters ready if or when he does.

Still, it's surprising the Pelicans haven't at least tried to find Valanciunas safer harbor on defense considering how important he is to their offense right now. We'll see if they adjust that aspect of their defensive game plan as the series shifts to New Orleans. They justifiably trust Larry Nance more at the defensive end and adopt a switch-heavy scheme when he replaces Valanciunas, but they can't score at all in those minutes.

For the Thunder, the important takeaway from these two games is that they stuck to their guns, trusted their advantages would ultimately win out, and were rewarded for it. They didn't panic and break out their rarely used two-big lineup of Holmgren and Jaylin Williams. After Valanciunas' opening flurry, Holmgren was able to keep him off the glass (the Pelicans as a team grabbed fewer in Game 2 than Valanciunas alone snared in Game 1). Holmgren also deterred him at the rim, in one case blocking a jump hook even after being knocked backward several feet. The Thunder have a 92.4 defensive rating with him on the floor in the series.

Meanwhile, OKC's perimeter pressure forced New Orleans into 17 turnovers and made life hell on Ingram and CJ McCollum. A much more comfortable Gilgeous-Alexander lit up the same defenders who troubled him in Game 1 to the tune of 33 points on 13-for-19 shooting. When he couldn't shake free of Herb Jones or was picked up full court, he deferred to Jalen Williams and went to set some off-ball screens, generating favorable switches in the process. The whole game was a perfect distillation of the Thunder's formula for success.

Their weaknesses aren't going to disappear, and bigger challenges are coming, in this series and (should they advance) in future rounds. They passed their initial test with flying colors. Let's see how they handle the next one.

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