After Game 3 of the very entertaining opening round series between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, all anyone could talk about was Ricky Rubio. In his third career postseason game, the seventh-year point guard out of Spain roasted the Thunder to the tune of a 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, leading Utah to a 115-102 win that gave the Jazz a 2-1 edge in their best-of-seven series, with a chance to put the Thunder on the brink of elimination by holding serve in Salt Lake City in Monday’s Game 4.
As much as Rubio has improved as a willing shooter and attacker in his first year in Utah, it still came as something of a surprise that he, rather than rising rookie star Donovan Mitchell, was the one leading the scoring charge in the Jazz’s second straight win. (Game 2’s star did all right, too, fighting through early foul trouble to finish with 22 points and 11 rebounds in the win.) Well, to hear reigning NBA Most Valuable Player and Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook tell it, the Thunder won’t be so surprised again:
“He made some shots. Too comfortable,” said Westbrook, who struggled through an off-night with 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting, 11 rebounds, nine assists and eight turnovers, postgame press conference. “I’m gonna shut that s— off next game, though. Guarantee that.”
That Westbrook would make such a pronouncement isn’t especially stunning; this is, after all, a man given to bold statements. His declaration invited a question, though: how exactly would Russ and the Thunder shut Rubio’s stuff off come Game 4? And, more to the point: what do they need to shut off most?
The Thunder forced Rubio to act as a focal point in Game 1, using Paul George to blanket complementary creator Joe Ingles while sagging off Rubio to make it tougher to activate other offensive options and effectively daring him to shoot. It worked, helping induce Rubio into a 5-for-18 shooting performance as the Thunder scored a 116-108 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated (shouts to a late-game outburst from Alec Burks).
Over the past two games, though, Utah has found an offensive rhythm, scoring a shade under 110 points per 100 possessions in Games 2 and 3. Finding ways to consistently and efficiently generate points when the two point men tangle has been a big part of that.
Westbrook has matched up as Rubio’s primary defender on 88 possessions over the past two games, according to NBA.com’s Second Spectrum tracking data. Rubio has produced well in the one-off, scoring 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting when guarded by Westbrook while dishing 15 assists against only three turnovers. The Jazz as a team have scored 99 points in those 88 trips, a rate of 112.5 points per 100 possessions; that would’ve been a tick above the Warriors and Rockets for the No. 1 offensive efficiency mark in the league this season.
So, how has Utah been taking advantage of that matchup? Well, to some degree, Rubio and his teammates have taken advantage of the times when Russ hasn’t paid all that much attention to the matchup, swinging Rubio the ball on the perimeter when Westbrook has abandoned him to, say, help on Rudy Gobert on the pick-and-roll …
… or to slide into the paint really early on a Mitchell drive …
… or to … well, I’m not totally sure what Russ was doing here, sliding all the way to the foul line with George directly between Mitchell and the basket, everyone else matched up, and Rubio one pass away:
Rubio missed that one — perhaps he was too open — but he made five 3-pointers in Game 2, taking advantage of Oklahoma City focusing its attention elsewhere (and sometimes just being inattentive) to get his shot going in the victory. His long-distance game fell by the wayside a bit in Game 3 — just 2-for-9 from deep, with the makes coming on a wide-open step-back in transition and a prayer of a buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter — but Rubio more than made up for it with a steady stream of midrange makes and free throws on his way to the biggest game of his NBA career:
To some degree, Billy Donovan and company will probably live with Rubio getting some of those looks again. If you force him to his left into traffic and he hits a 12-foot leaner, well, you can’t take away everything, right? Better that than Mitchell getting all the way to the rim or an open 3 somewhere else.
The bigger issue for the Thunder, though, is the amount of trouble they’ve had in taking away those open 3s somewhere else. Their problem isn’t really shutting off Rubio’s s—; it’s shutting off the s— the Jazz can pull when Rubio, Mitchell or another ball-handler can load up the strong side of the floor and pull OKC defenders into the screen-and-roll game.
Time and again over the past two games, Utah has sought to exploit Oklahoma City’s aggressive help defense to create open 3-point shots on the weak side. For example: Midway through the second quarter of Game 2, Rubio took a high screen from forward Jonas Jerebko, dribbling to his left. Rubio’s defender, Raymond Felton, and Jerebko’s man, Patrick Patterson, both stayed with Rubio, trying both to get him to pick up his dribble and to disrupt his passing lanes once he did so. But Rubio waited out their effort at the point of attack; as Jerebko rolled to the rim, and Paul George sank in from the far corner to tag him, Rubio’s patience allowed him to get a clear line of sight to the far corner …
… where he spied sniper Joe Ingles, left wide-open by George crashing down into the paint. Rubio fired the cross-court dime, and Ingles drilled the 3.
This exact thing has happened again (Ingles in the far corner)…
… and again (Derrick Favors sliding away from the inattentive Carmelo Anthony) …
… and again (Mitchell, this time) …
… and again (Royce O’Neale, in the lower left-hand corner of your screen) …
… and again (Ingles, left wing) …
… and again (Ingles, right wing, about to get a cross-court feed from O’Neale) …
… and again (two more for your man Joe) …
… over the past two games, and especially in Game 3.
“We wanted to make an emphasis to really shut that pick-and-roll off and that left [the] weak side, backside open, Ingles shooting 3s,” George said after Game 3, according to Fred Katz of the Norman, Okla., Transcript. “Tonight, he got hot.”
For the most part, this isn’t anything especially out of the ordinary. When one side of the floor has more offensive players on it than the other, there will be more defensive players on it. Coaches typically want players on the back side of the play to slide a step or two closer to where the action is, putting more bodies near the basket to deter dribble penetration and tasking their help-side defenders with being able to rotate back out to the less-threatening offensive player on the opposite side of the court before a pass can get to him to make him more threatening.
In this situation, though, OKC’s aggressive help seems to be hurting. If everyone’s a step or two closer to the ball-handler than they need to be — and, crucially importantly, everyone’s also looking at the ball-handler instead of seeing the ball and their men — then there are going to be more openings for skip passes to weak-side shooters, and it’s going to be tougher for defenders to track back and contest their shots.
And if the two initial defenders on the screen action — the guy guarding the ball-handler and the guy guarding the screener — don’t stay with the ball-handler long enough, or keep their hands high enough to obstruct his view, then those opportunities become all the more enticing. Especially for an expert passer like Rubio, who has looked incredibly comfortable the past couple of games firing lasers that land directly in his teammates’ shooting pockets, and especially when the shooter is Ingles, who drilled better than 50 percent of his corner 3s this season and has shot 44 percent from deep overall in each of the past two years.
“We’ve got to rotate better. We’ve got to do a better job of slowing the ball down,” Donovan said, according to Katz. “When you’re playing defense, it’s not just the end result of Ingles taking a 3. It’s a lot of things leading up to that you’ve got to do better.”
If turning this into a mano a mano showdown helps Westbrook lock into the task of focusing more on his on-ball pressure and off-ball responsibilities, then great; he’s certainly got the tools to make things difficult on Rubio, disrupting the rhythm he and the Jazz have found over the past two games. Rubio, though, isn’t interested in turning the series into a head-to-head affar.
“I mean, of course he wants to play better,” Rubio told reporters before Game 4</>. “I want to play better, too […] In Game 3, I put up big numbers, but it wasn’t just numbers, the whole team played good as a team, and we’re gonna keep up that game plan.”
If the Jazz can do that, baiting the Thunder into loading up to stop Gobert and Favors diving to the rim to open up skip passes for long-range bombs, then they could go back to Oklahoma City with a chance to close out the Thunder on their home court. But if Westbrook, George and company can do a better job of staying at home on their marks and staying disciplined within the defensive scheme, then they just might shut Utah’s s— off, snatch back home-court, and change the tenor of a fascinating series.
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