Things were far too easy for Paul George in Game 1 of Oklahoma City’s series against the Utah Jazz. He was mostly unmolested coming off screens and in pick-and-roll, enabling him to get to his spots and knock down comfortable shots. Multiple Utah players split time guarding George, but none did a particularly inspiring job of it as he finished 13-for-20 from the field and 8-for-11 from beyond the arc in the Thunder’s opening victory.
Game 2 was a different story. It wasn’t just that George finished 6-for-21 but how he got his shots and how much more difficult the Jazz made his life during Wednesday night’s game. Set plays that worked for the Thunder in Game 1 weren’t just contested harder by Utah; they were blown up completely, often resulting in either a turnover or terrible late-clock shot from one Oklahoma City’s worse offensive players. In particular, Oklahoma City likes to run a set I call “Zipper Step” for George and in Game 1, they weren’t seeing a lot of resistance from the Jazz:
There was plenty of hand-checking between George and his defender (George even picked up an offensive foul early in the game by pushing off on Royce O’Neale), but once he made his cut, George was able to catch the ball and use the screen from his big man without much difficulty. Things changed in Game 2, in which it was obvious from the tip that the Jazz were not going to let George get what he wanted.
In Game 1, Joe Ingles was content to let George catch and go through the motions of the Thunder’s set, giving him all kinds of space.
That wasn’t the case in Game 2; Ingles stalked him all the way to near the midline and stuck to him throughout, never letting him touch the ball:
Even after Russell Westbrook was unable to get the ball to George, Ingles didn’t give up. He knew exactly where George wanted to go and put himself between the ball and George, not letting him take the handoff from Steven Adams and rendering the entire play useless. Adams tried to get the ball to George later in the possession, but the pressure from Ingles forced a miscommunication between the two and Adams threw the ball away as George cut backdoor.
Ingles would take it a step further later in the game, denying George the ability to make the zipper cut at all:
Ingles executes what’s called “top-lock” in the above clip. By getting his body between George and the screener, George either has to take a circuitous route to take the screen or stay in the corner. Ingles wedges himself in there and takes George’s zipper cut out of the play. One of the dangers with top-lock is exactly what we see in the above clip: Ingles is no longer between his man and the basket, which opens him up to a backdoor cut or, as in this case, a fake backdoor cut to open up a three-pointer. Ingles executed the top-lock perfectly and knew that he had to watch the backdoor cut, so when George gave him a jab toward the basket, he bit hard.
The Jazz were physical with George throughout the game on his Iverson cuts, another favorite of the Thunder to get him involved in the ball handling responsibilities. Ingles even tried to top-lock the Iverson cut, but George was able to get through. Still, Ingles threw off the timing of the play and George forced a terrible leaning three-pointer as a result of his frustration and the slightest glimpse at daylight:
In the second half, Oklahoma City came back with an interesting counter to Utah’s physicality on the Iverson cut, instead having George cut short his movement and come back to the same side on which he started, leaving Ingles way behind the play:
Things are set up the same way, but once George gets to the top of the key, he actually lets Ingles get on the other side of him, then cuts back behind another screen from Patrick Patterson to catch the ball on the right side of the floor, just next to where he started in the first place. Ingles gets wrongfooted, forcing the switch of Jonas Jerebko onto George, which ends in an open three after Jerebko is sent stumbling after George’s jab toward the rim.
In pick-and-roll, the Jazz were picking up George well beyond the three-point line and trapping him out there, giving him no airspace to pull up for three. He showed in Game 1 just how dangerous he can be even when he’s being bumped, so Utah’s aim was to take away these shots completely by trapping far from the basket. Watch how high Jae Crowder picks up George as he brings the ball across the timeline:
Most coaches will have their defenders pick up a shooter with their heels on the three-point line; Crowder is a full step further out than that, corralling George out near the Chesapeake Energy Arena logo at the intersection of the halfcourt line and sideline. Adams steps up to screen for George and Rudy Gobert is right there to cut off any drive to the rim, forcing George back out to the three-point line and eventually getting a steal.
Side note: this is terrible spacing from Westbrook. He stands so close to the George-Adams pick-and-roll that Ricky Rubio can show help in front of George, putting yet another body between him and the rim, while still being in touching distance to get back to Westbrook if needed. Once George starts to bring the ball back out to the three-point line, Westbrook should cut to the basket and fill out to the right corner, but that’s never been a particular strong suit of his.
Again, watch here as Donovan Mitchell picks up George well beyond the three-point line and Derrick Favors is there to trap along the sideline:
George is unable to even use the screen from Jerami Grant due to the high trap and he ends up having to give the ball up to Carmelo Anthony, who throws it away.
Oklahoma City started to bring some counters to the trap in the second quarter, which softened the Jazz defense slightly through the remainder of the game. Watch how they send two big screeners for George here, but Patterson pops early, getting way out to the midcourt logo and offering an easy release valve for George:
From there, Oklahoma City is playing 4-on-3, which turned into 3-on-2 once Jerebko committed to Patterson and the ball found its way to Grant at the free throw line.
Utah made George’s life very difficult in Game 2 after a walk in the park in Game 1 and I expect them to continue this sort of physical play in future games, especially as the series shifts to Utah, where that physicality could have an effect on George’s conditioning in the altitude. He’s such an important part of what Oklahoma City does on both ends of the floor as the second option offensively and the key stopper for both Ingles and Mitchell at various points throughout the game that any advantage Utah can press to get him off the floor for another two or three minutes will behoove them in Games 3 and 4. Billy Donovan and the Thunder will come with adjustments, perhaps working George in more handoff situations to put an extra body on his defender or running more action out of their Thumb series, which will put the trapping big man behind the action and allow George to turn the corner on a hard screen. Adams was limited to just 22 minutes in Game 2 due to foul trouble and as by far the team’s best screener, Oklahoma City will need him out there to help spring George.