OKLAHOMA CITY — Carmelo Anthony won’t give away secrets.
The Thunder made a clear effort to stop short of Utah’s impenetrable rim-protector, Rudy Gobert, during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. It worked. But Anthony isn’t revealing to anyone how it happened.
“I can’t tell you that. I’m pretty sure Utah is looking at these interviews,” he joked. “I’m not going to do that.”
There was, however, one obvious way the Thunder took Gobert out of his comfort zone: Paul George got hot. Really hot. Hot enough that the Jazz sent Gobert trapping George miles away from the hoop during OKC’s 116-108 victory Sunday.
George’s 36 points weren’t important just for the score. No, his most impressive Sunday night feat was becoming so accurate that the Jazz, owners of a stubborn defense, deviated from their usual pick-and-roll coverage to get the ball in anyone else’s hands.
George, who finished the game 8 of 11 from 3-point range and 13 of 20 from the field, started creating buckets for others come late in the game, when Utah sent Gobert, the NBA’s best rim-protector, to trap him on pick-and-rolls. With the Jazz adjusting from their usual drop coverage, which keeps Gobert close to the rim, George was able to find rollers for pseudo four-on-three breaks in the halfcourt, which led to buckets.
“They did a great job of reacting to that,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And that’s when you saw the ball move. Any time you commit two guys to the ball, you’re susceptible to that.”
Utah rarely ever changes its pick-and-roll coverage. It was the NBA’s best defense judging by just about any legitimate metric after Gobert returned mid-season from a knee injury. But sending the 7-foot-1 tower 30 feet from the rim was a fitting end to how Oklahoma City treated him during Game 1.
The Thunder found ways to limit the impact of the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. And it started before George bent the defense.
“We want to keep [Gobert] engaged as far as not being able to change shots and not being effective down in the paint blocking shots,” Anthony said. “So, I thought yesterday we did a good job for one, making shots and two, just keeping him away from being able to be effective as far as blocking shots and altering shots.”
The Jazz want to give up mid-range jumpers. They're far from the only defense schemed that way. But the Thunder capitalized on the looks Utah allowed Sunday.
That range from 16-to-22 feet is open when Gobert hangs around the deep paint. And they made enough to turn a notoriously dry area of the floor relatively efficient, hitting 11 of 23 from mid-range. Russell Westbrook took 12 of those. Anthony and George combined for 10.
The Thunder intentionally swung to sides where Gobert wasn’t and tried to operate from there. Center Steven Adams did his best to seal Gobert in moments when Oklahoma City dribblers got near the hoop.
“As long as he’s away from the paint and stuff, it’ll be a lot easier to get layups or whatnot,” Adams said.
The team clearly strategized differently when Gobert was resting, attempting 48 percent of its field-goal attempts at the rim when he was on the bench compared to 23 percent when he was on the floor. And 18 of the 23 mid-range shots came with Gobert playing.
But the Thunder were fortunate. They made nine of those. George knocked in every type of jumper imaginable. That won’t always happen.
The most fascinating part of the rest of this series will be how it plays out when Oklahoma City isn’t making whatever it chucks at the hoop.
Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.