Thunder Face Significant Lineup Questions

May 11, 2024
By Grant Afseth
This article was written exclusively for Autograph App users by Grant Afseth. Grant is a Dallas Mavericks reporter for MavsGameday.com and an NBA reporter for NBA Analysis Network.

This article was written exclusively for Autograph App users by Grant Afseth and can only be found on the Autograph App. Grant is a Dallas Mavericks reporter for MavsGameday.com and an NBA reporter for NBA Analysis Network.

DALLAS — After adding Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington using midseason trades, the Mavericks experienced a defensive turnaround late in the regular season. It’s helped establish an identity that’s translated to postseason success, beginning with a first-round series victory against the LA Clippers—placing them into their current matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a 1-1 series tie entering Saturday’s Game 3 matchup at American Airlines Center.

Before using the final two games of the regular season to rest key players, Dallas had a 20-game stretch of being the NBA’s best defense—primarily by deploying a strategy in the half-court focused on shrinking the floor by sagging off weak shooters. Against teams capable of deploying a five-out offense, the Mavericks displayed limitations guarding in space with the need to improve ahead of the postseason. With Josh Giddey being a poor perimeter shooter, the Thunder have already faced limitations that play into the Mavericks’ intended strategy.

Giddey's struggles have been a significant concern for the Thunder, proving to be a contributing factor in their 119-110 loss against the Mavericks. He’s played a combined 28 minutes in the first two games, scoring only 2 points and shooting 0-4 from beyond the arc, but has been unable to find his rhythm. Whether the center guards him despite initiating the offense or leaves him on the perimeter for the defense to pack the paint, it’s much more challenging for Oklahoma City to operate in the half-court when he’s on the floor.

The Thunder's coaching staff has been trying to find ways to get Giddey more involved, but it's been a clear challenge. Giddey was a minus-7 in 17 minutes in Game 1 and a minus-20 in 11 minutes in Game 2, his lowest minute total of the season.

Giddey’s playing time has been limited due to the Thunder's experimentation with different lineups. Aaron Wiggins replaced him in the lineup after halftime in Game 2. By swapping him out, Oklahoma City can deploy a shooter at all five positions, making it easier for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to attack and create an advantage for the unit. 

"I wouldn't say it didn't work," Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said of the Giddey lineups. "Halftime sub is a sub we've done for a long time. It's basically an in-game substitution. So I don't view it any different than checking someone into the game with eight minutes to go in the third quarter.”

The Thunder face lineup questions as the series shifts to Dallas for Game 3. Do they stick with Giddey despite his struggles, or do they continue to experiment with different combinations?

“We're going to keep it fluid,” Daigneault said. “We went big right away early tonight, and I thought that looked pretty good. We're going to be a moving target; do what we think is best. Every game is different."

The Thunder must find a way to get Giddey involved and productive if they want to take control of the series, or they must be willing to push the right buttons with lineups. His struggles have put pressure on other players to step up, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been carrying the load, scoring 33 points in Game 2, but the Thunder need more from their supporting cast.

"We've got a really good opponent that played really well tonight," Daigneault said. "We tried to scrap back into it. I thought our effort was really good tonight. I thought we tried to gear it up a couple different times. I thought where we left something to be desired was execution."

While the Thunder have frequently used small-ball lineups with Jaylin Williams playing the five, one option they showed a willingness to turn to in Game 2 was to deploy a bigger frontcourt, featuring Williams next to Chet Holmgren. It’s potentially a more viable combination since Williams, shooting 3-6 in the series, is a better shooter than Giddey while giving Oklahoma City more size on the court.  

"In both games, it's given us a nice rim presence, a nice rebounding presence," Daigneault said of playing Williams and Holmgren. "With the way they defend us, it doesn't really alter us much offensively.”

Williams is a talented passer in his own right, so the Thunder can check many boxes when he’s on the floor with Holmgren, making the Mavericks reconsider some defensive strategies. 

“We were able to stay in character. Jay Will shot it well early tonight,” Daigneault said. “That makes them think twice about some coverages. It's just another option. Early in the series, every possession has a lot of gravity to it, but you want to create optionality."

The Thunder's defense has also been a concern, allowing 119 points in Game 2 after holding all opponents to 95 points or fewer in their previous postseason games. They need to find a way to slow down the Mavericks' offense again after Luka Doncic thrived with 29 points despite an emphasis on loading up on him while daring others to shoot, which Washington and the team's other complementary players picked apart after adapting. Washington scored a postseason career-high 29 while making seven shots from deep, while non-Doncic players accounted for 13 made 3-pointers. 

When reviewing how Game 2 unfolded, the Thunder could stick to their strategy of daring weak-side shooters to make them pay while having the low-defender pre-rotate to pressure Doncic or Irving. Oklahoma City had success in Game 1 with this strategy when blitzing, too, since it caused tough finish attempts and more challenging reads for the short-roller, whether it was Gafford or Dereck Lively II. After seeing it, Dallas was more prepared.

Considering Doncic continues to play through various injuries, including a right knee sprain and left ankle soreness—causing him to be listed as questionable for Game 3—there is a case for Oklahoma City to continue with its strategy and trust the numbers that it’ll pan out. However, allowing Doncic to see similar defenses for long stretches tends to play in his favor, and Dallas’ role players know the types of looks his passes will create.

As the series heads to Dallas, the Thunder face an uphill battle. But with adjustments and a more robust performance from Giddey, they may be able to turn the tide.

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