OKLAHOMA CITY — Utah knows a way to stop one of the NBA's most dynamic fast-break threats: make sure he's never on the break in the first place.
Through two playoff games, the Jazz have limited the Thunder's transition opportunities by committing what are commonly refered to as "Euro-fouls," when they intentionally hack whichever Thunder player is leading a fast break, usually Russell Westbrook.
They've executed five so far, four on Westbrook and one on backup point guard Raymond Felton. It's a straightforward concept: Utah would rather use one of its five fouls per quarter to ensure Oklahoma City is taking the ball out instead of running it down the court. For now, the Thunder seem not to mind the hacks all too much.
“You got to keep pushing it,” transition aficionado Corey Brewer said. “If they’re going to foul him, we’re going to get in the bonus.”
To OKC's credit, the Jazz haven’t capitalized perfectly on their Euro-fouling opportunities. Shooting guard Donovan Mitchell reverted to peak-rookie mode one time and fouled Westbrook when they were already in the bonus. And Utah hasn’t used the strategy all that often, yet.
But Utah is notoriously good at not fouling and has avoided the bonus well this series. In fact, those two Westbrook free throws following Mitchell’s brain cramp are the only two freebies OKC has shot off non-shooting fouls this series (excluding the intentional fouling inside the final minute of Game 1's eight-point Thunder win). The Jazz have stayed out of the bonus altogether for three of the series’ eight quarters and haven't reached it earlier than with 2:56 remaining in a period.
“Just being able to get him out of transition, because [Westbrook] is elite when it comes to transition,” Mitchell said. “So, just trying to limit that as much as possible. Get guys back on defense, but it’s not as easy as it looks.”
It could become a tad less complicated once Utah gets more familiar with the Thunder, though. And as the series continues, it’s conceivable the Euro-fouls could start to pile, given the Thunder’s makeup.
For all the offensive talent on the roster, this team has been one of the NBA’s worst at scoring when the game is slow. Oklahoma City averaged only 93.3 points per 100 possessions while in its half-court offense this season, 21st in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports. The Jazz, meanwhile, allowed only 91.3 points per 100 while defending in the half court, third-best in the league, per Synergy.
So, Utah is taking a chance based on the most basic of mathematics. The most important aspect of finding success on the break is simply getting there. The least efficient transition offenses are still more successful than the best half-court ones. And the Thunder know how to convert potentially long possessions into quick ones, streaking ones.
They averaged 11.0-second possessions on ones that followed defensive rebounds this year, making for the NBA’s eighth-quickest offense in those scenarios, according to inpredictable.com. Their possessions that followed turnovers took 8.9 seconds, seventh-fastest in the league. Maybe as the series goes on, the Jazz can put more and more of an emphasis on taking that away.
Oklahoma City averaged 108.8 points per 100 possessions in transition this season, per Synergy, vastly better than when opponents turn the attack more viscous. It’s why, after all, OKC coaches and players scheme for Westbrook to grab boards, when the league’s arguable fastest player can grab and go without having to worry about fielding an outlet pass. The Thunder averaged an inconceivably high 123.6 points per 100 on possessions that follow his defensive rebounds, according to data filtered by pbpstats.com.
When Utah pulls those Euro-fouls, the Thunder lose that effect.
So maybe this happens more as the series continues, considering Utah is already a disciplined team and players will grow more comfortable with OKC’s and Westbrook’s habits with each game. If the Jazz are able to stay away from non-shooting fouls in other scenarios, Euro-fouling could be worth it — especially considering there’s no defense against it.
“If they’re going to run and foul somebody, they’re going to go ahead and do that…So yeah, it moves you one foul closer to the bonus,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “But there’s really nothing you can do.”
Fred 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.