As opponents dare Josh Giddey to shoot, the Thunder will be forced to adapt

As opponents dare Josh Giddey to shoot, the Thunder will be forced to adapt

As defenses throw new looks at the Thunder, OKC is being forced to adapt. On Friday it plays a team that’s thrived on offensive innovation and evolution.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 8, 2023, 6:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 8, 2023, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The shots are there if Josh Giddey wants them. 

The Thunder point guard had his choice of them Wednesday in Houston. A 3-pointer from the left wing with the Rockets’ Fred VanVleet offering only a token closeout; another at the top of the key when Houston center Alperen Sengun never left the lane to contest. 

Giddey took some of the good looks that came his way in a 110-101 loss and passed on some others, finishing the night with eight points on 3-for-11 shooting. 

The Rockets weren’t the first team lately to try sagging off Giddey and daring the struggling point guard to shoot. But Houston’s approach — often with a big man as the closest defender — was something new. 

“I was talking to him about it this morning, and he’s like, ‘It’s the first time I’ve gotten played like that,’ which I think is an important point,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “He’s been here for two years. And I look at it as, it’s a compliment to our offense that we’re seeing that now.”

It’s not just that defenses are playing off Giddey. 

It’s that they’re throwing new wrinkles at the Thunder. Consistently. 

Last week, Minnesota — the best halfcourt defensive team in the league — went zone against the Thunder because its man-to-man struggled to keep up with the OKC offense. Dallas deployed aggressive traps to get back in the game last weekend after the OKC offense got red-hot in the third quarter. 

And Daigneault found it fitting amid this defensive tinkering that his team would host the Warriors on Friday at Paycom Center. 

Golden State built a dynasty around an innovative offense, using Steph Curry and Klay Thompson— the best long-range shooting duo in NBA history — as screeners for each other and playing small-ball lineups in which forward-sized Draymond Green could be a playmaking center. 

And “the league is not just going to sit back and let you do what you want to do,” Daigneault said, so as the then-young Warriors worked to perfect their offense, they dealt with a barrage of blitzes and switches. 

“And they’ve developed all these tricks against all these different things where it’s like no matter what you throw at them now it’s familiar,” Daigneualt said. “But the point of that is they haven’t just like hatched into that. Like, this wasn’t where they started.”

Seeing those defensive wrinkles — and learning to how to beat them — is “a big part of the evolution of a team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. 

“Everybody’s so unique,” Kerr said. “Based on personnel, everybody develops their own style. And then if you get good — like OKC is now — teams start game-planning for you and they start throwing stuff at you and you have to be able to counter. But the counter happens over time. It doesn’t happen immediately.”

The Warriors built a big portion of their playbook, Kerr said, in the playoffs, where “the defense is really particular about guarding certain actions,” he said. Golden State would see a new defensive look one game and spend the time before the next one analyzing it on film, taking tweaks to the team and seeing what the players liked. 

This iteration of the Thunder hasn’t played in a playoff series yet. And though it made the Play-In Tournament last season, OKC finished 40-42, a good enough record to see potential but not to draw intense defensive scrutiny. 

This year is different. 

The addition of a healthy Chet Holmgren has given OKC added shooting and floor spacing from the center spot. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — a first-team All-NBA selection last season — is among the league’s most versatile offensive weapons.  

And OKC is off to a 13-7 start that has the league’s attention. 

“They have a very distinct style,” Kerr said. “Like, they’ve figured out who they are — all the guard-to-guard screens, they put so much pressure on you with their spacing. And so now you go against them defensively and you really have to think, ‘How are we going to win?’ because these guys are really damn good.”

That means defenses face decisions about what to give up. 

And lately, they’ve shown a willingness to give Giddey open shots. 

His shooting struggles hardly are the most notable part of Giddey’s season. He’s the subject of police and NBA investigations into a viral social-media post on Thanksgiving that alleged he had an improper relationship with a minor. 

The Thunder has played road games at Minnesota, Dallas and Houston since the NBA confirmed it was looking into the allegations, and fans in all three cities have booed Giddey every time he’s touched the ball. 

But the lack of defensive attention to him on the perimeter has been impossible to miss. And understandable. 

Giddey is shooting 31.9% from 3-point range and struggling even when he gets into the paint. He’s making 50.5% of his shots in the restricted area — for comparison, Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams each are a little over 67% there — and shooting 34.2% on shots in the lane but outside the restricted area. 

Giddey starts with three dynamic offensive options in Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren and Williams, and to better load up against that big three, defenses are giving Giddey space. 

It’s a new look. Now OKC has to make adjustments. 

“The first one is let him see it for the first time,” Daigneault said. “Let him see it. Let him go through it for a sec and just calibrate it. He hasn’t been played like that before.”

Though defenders have given space, Daigneault said, using a center as the defender closest to him is fresh. OKC wants its point guard to play through the change and “see what solutions he finds” as Daigneault and his staff work to scheme some. 

Daigneault mentioned the possibility of having Giddey screen more. In looking back at the Houston game, Daigneault saw opportunities for Giddey to play in dribble handoffs with sharpshooter Isaiah Joe, taking advantage of the space around Giddey to get Joe clean looks from 3-point range. 

Sagging off Giddey is “not going to be the only tactic we see for the rest of time,” Daigneault said. The Thunder will throw counters to it, and then teams will figure out something new and OKC will have to answer again. 

That kind of tinkering was a big part of the Warriors’ early days. 

“Good teams have to go through that to get to be becoming a great team,” Curry said. 

The Thunder is early in that process. There are whole chapters to be added to its playbook. 

The team it plays Friday has penned full volumes. 

But Golden State started where OKC is now, a talented young up-and-comer with an offense that felt fresh.  

And though there were growing pains for the Warriors — and will be for the Thunder — in adjusting to new defenses, this part can be a pleasure, too. 

“When you become a threat, everybody else is gonna adapt, try to slow it down,” Curry said. “Especially those young teams like we were once upon a time that just have a different energy about them. You can tell that they found something, but they’re just still just trying to figure it out as they go and experimenting. Those are the hardest teams to guard because they’re making stuff up on the fly with the creativity that they have, the skill set that they have. OKC’s shown that.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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