OKC Thunder: Billy Donovan demonstrates how coaching affects winning

JANUARY 04: Danilo Gallinari #8 talks with head coach Billy Donovan of the OKC Thunder during the second half (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
JANUARY 04: Danilo Gallinari #8 talks with head coach Billy Donovan of the OKC Thunder during the second half (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

If you think coaching no longer matters in the NBA, Billy Donovan served up a masterpiece in the win over the Houston Rockets demonstrating precisely how much coaching can affect winning.

The OKC Thunder went into the game against the Houston Rockets without Abdel Nader, Andre Roberson, Terrance Ferguson, and Nerlens Noel. Then with the game less than two minutes old, the Thunder lost Steven Adams with an ankle sprain.

So, looking at this, the Thunder were without their first and second option at small forward. The temptation would have been to start Hamidou Diallo. Instead, coach Billy Donovan went with Luguentz Dort for his first start in just nine NBA games.

If you look at raw numbers Harden had 29 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. However, Harden went 1-of -17 from deep. Dort played him tight and was the best defensive matchup on Harden all game.

Next Donovan showed his coaching acumen with Adams going out. He automatically went to Mike Muscala but what happens when the third-string center needs a break? Well, Donovan worked out a small ball lineup that mostly worked.

He had rookie Darius Bazley playing the five spot and Deonte Burton play the four. He then worked a rotation with Diallo, Chris Paul Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. The game opened up but the Thunder were in the game at the half.

The third quarter was an issue. The OKC Thunder were outscored 23 to just 14 meaning they started another fourth quarter a long way down. To make matters worse, Muscala picked up his fifth foul prior to the third break.

This meant that the Thunder were short, literally at the start of the fourth. Donovan started the period with Paul, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, Diallo, and Burton. Yes, the 6’5″ Burton was matched up against Clint Capela at center.

What Donovan realized was Capela was on five fouls. This meant he was not able to challenge the quicker, smaller guards and the Thunder pulled the margin back in.

Bazley could have played at this point but when the Thunder went small in the second, the lane was wide open. Burton did not let that happen in the fourth.

It also meant Donovan was able to rest Danilo Gallinari for almost a full three minutes so that he could go the rest of the way. It also meant Muscala was not going to add to his foul tally, meaning he was good to go to the end too.

Well, Gallinari got hot and Dort was able to defend Harden brilliantly all the way until the three minute mark of the final frame. After taking a charge from Harden, Dort was subbed out for the most clutch player in the league, Chris Paul.

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Donovan rode the lineup of Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Gallinari, and Muscala for six minutes. In the past, he has had to pull players who had got him back in games but Paul was happy to sit on the bench.

He also had one time out for that period of time and did not have to use it. This may have been crucial down the stretch. He kept his nerve for the entire fourth, where the Thunder, finding the right lineup on a night where the team could have been blown out.

The result was an OKC Thunder victory in the face of adversity and they pulled a game back on the Rockets in the standings. To put it simply, Donovan knew his team and knew the opposition game plan.

He knew he could get away with the smaller lineup as Capela can only hurt you when someone sets his shot up for him. Pressuring the perimeter stopped this from happening and Burton with his athleticism was able to compete with the much taller player.

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The way Donovan coached this game, height did not matter. There is a reason he was named Western Conference coach of the month and if he keeps this up, he will be up for the award this month too. Coaching does matter in this league.