Prior to Saturday night's game between Cleveland and Oklahoma City, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's Brian Windhorst wrote:
I believe the Durant-LeBron matchup could be better than the Kobe-LeBron matchup tonight and for years to come. Durant is a high efficiency scorer, he gets to the line at a high rate, shoots at a high rate and he rebounds better than Kobe. At this point in his career, at least this season because of injuries, Kobe has turned into a volume scorer on a lot of nights. Durant, and James for that matter, aren't. That is why I predict a quality duel.
True to Windhorst's forecast, the mano-a-mano battle was captivating. The two scorers combined for 71 points in a seesaw affair that saw five lead changes in a scintillating fourth quarter. A battle that was waged in the interior for three quarters -- and dominated by Shaquille O'Neal for much of that time -- moved further out to the perimeter in the fourth.
For all of Durant's uptick in efficiency (a PER of 24.58, vs. 20.85 last season), the Thunder have been winning basketball games this season on the strength of their defense, and we saw Oklahoma City make some gritty stands down the stretch. There's a reason it took some huge shot-making by Daniel Gibson for the Cavs to put Oklahoma City away at the Q -- the Thunder clogged the middle, as they've been doing all season.
But just as we're not hearing enough about Oklahoma City's defense amidst the celebratory praise of everyone's favorite youth movement, there's not much discussion of this:
The Thunder have trouble scoring points.
In fact, only nine teams in the League have more trouble.
While that's a marked improvement from last season, when only the Clippers were worse than the Thunder in offensive efficiency, it's a little bit of a head-scratcher for a team blessed with a matchup nightmare like Durant.
Saturday night during the tight fourth quarter, we got a glimpse of the Thunder's struggles when they went more than five minutes without draining a shot from the field. There was a particularly ghastly stretch of seven possessions over which Oklahoma City generated only a single point on a Durant free throw.
What happened to the Thunder in those moments? Was Durant not finding shots he likes? Was it something akin to what the Lakers or Cavs experience at times when the other four guys on the floor stand around watching Bryant or James? Was Durant forcing the issue? Not forcing it enough?
Possession 1 (5:35)
Inefficient offensive units often have a tendency to squander a good 10 seconds before getting into their sets. Finding good shots against a defense as stingy as Cleveland's is a tough business, and the more time you budget to generate those looks the better. By milking 10 seconds off the clock, you also let your opponent off the hook because it requires far less energy to defend for 14 seconds than 24 seconds.
On this possession, rookie combo guard James Harden has the ball up top. It appears that the Thunder might be running a pin-down with Russell Westbrook on the right side to free up Durant, but if that's the case, Westbrook misses Durant's defender, Anthony Parker, altogether. When Durant gets the pass up top and begins working against Parker, James leaves Harden to double team. No surprise there.
Durant, sometimes criticized for being an unwilling passer, kicks the ball out to Harden, who passes up the 3-pointer (he's a 37.7 percent shooter from that distance). Harden instead works off the dribble, but it isn't long before he tosses the grenade back to Durant with the clock expiring. Durant has to settle for a long, contested shot from beyond the arc:
Possession 2 (4:46)
Another half-hearted down screen for Durant, this time by Jeff Green. Now might be a good time to send some film to the Thunder supporting cast of Kendrick Perkins laying out for Boston's perimeter scorers. Space matters, and the more room a team can generate for its primary scorer to work, the more efficient that offense is going to run. Fortunately for Durant, Serge Ibaka gets himself between Durant and Parker. This gives Durant one of his better looks at the basket in the fourth quarter, though it's not wide open. Why not?
Check out Shaquille O'Neal! You won't see him step up to challenge a shooter on a pick-and-roll very often, but here he sticks a big limb in Durant's face:
Possession 3 (4:23)
It's not a coincidence that Oklahoma City draws a foul early in the possession. Notice how much more quickly and decisively they challenge Cleveland, as Durant makes Parker chase him from the moment they cross the time line?
After the inbound, though, the Thunder have a difficult time freeing up Durant. Throw some credit Anthony Parker's way. Time and time again in the fourth quarter, he dodges Thunder picks, not yielding an inch to Durant. There's a telling moment at the 10-second mark. Watch:
See how Westbrook picks up his dribble? He assumes that he'll lob a simple entry pass to Durant, but Parker is doing such a good job denying that pass that Westbrook has to swing the ball over to Sefolosha in order to get his dribble back on the return. At that point, Westbrook has to freelance, and Daniel Gibson -- yes that Daniel Gibson -- blocks his runner as the clock expires.
Possession 4 (3:43)
First Ibaka rushes out of his pick for Westbrook, which gives the Thunder's point guard nothing. Then the ball goes over to the other side of floor where Green tries to execute to dribble-handoff for Durant. Parker sniffs it out and stays directly on Durant's left hip. With both Green's defender (J.J. Hicks0n) and Parker attending to Durant, Green heaves up a jumper a step inside the 3-point line. It's an open look, but Green is only a 29 percent shooter between 16 and 23 feet. With 12 seconds left on the shot clock and at least 10 feet between Green and O'Neal underneath the basket, why not step in?
Oklahoma City gets an open jumper for Ibaka off the inbound, one of their better opportunities of an otherwise barren stretch. But that shot rims out as well.
Possession 5 (3:08)
Basketball can be a cruel game. The Thunder finally gets Durant some space to drive off a high screen from Ibaka, but Durant loses control of the handle as he scampers into the paint.
Possession 6 (2:57)
Sefolosha has undoubtedly made the Thunder a better basketball team, but here's where he hurts Oklahoma City a bit on the offensive end. Watch the action underneath the basket. Pay special attention to how Durant runs his man, Parker, off Green, then flashes to the foul line:
Notice how James picks up Durant without incident while Parker recovers? It's a luxury the Cavs have because they're more than willing to live with an open Sefolosha on the weak side perimeter for a second or two. Now imagine that's Ray Allen, Jamal Crawford, Vince Carter, [fill in sharpshooting 2 of your choice] spreading the floor? James has to at least think about that switch, maybe hesitate for a split second, lest Westbrook swing a skip pass to the open shooter on the wing. Either way, that baseline screen that disrupts Parker forces Cleveland to make a much more difficult choice and makes the Thunder much tougher to defend.
As it turns out, Durant is able to beat James off the dribble and draw a foul on O'Neal inside. He sinks one of two free throws for the Thunder's only point of this stretch.
Possession 7 (2:24)
Oklahoma City clearly likes what it saw on the previous possession because they run the same set. The only difference? Sefolosha is set up on the ball side this time around, which prevents James from helping out Parker on the recovery. Unfortunately for Durant & Co., the action down low doesn't generate nearly the amount of separation that Durant was able to get the time before:
If the Thunder could stitch together the best attributes of Possession #6 (separation) with Possession #7 (spacing), they'd have a little chalkboard jewel. Instead, Durant misses short on a rushed attempt with Parker in close pursuit.
It's Early Yet
NBA defenders are a wily bunch and Oklahoma City is still an incredibly young team. They're just beginning to tackle the inordinately difficult task of finding open shots against the world's longest, most agile and most intuitive defenders. Right now, those defenders are zeroing in on Kevin Durant. That's going to force everyone on the Thunder to be more resourceful. The coaching staff will have to find new ways to get Durant open. Durant's teammates will have to learn how to run better interference between Durant and defensive aces like Anthony Parker. Most of all, Durant will have to figure out how to make defenses pay for overplaying him.
It turns out there's some relevant precedence for this. Remember the Cavs' 2007 50-32 squad that made the Finals? That team was 19th in offensive efficiency. And while LeBron James has always been an instinctive passer -- something you can't really say about Durant -- it took some time for him to establish that trust with teammates. Durant's just getting started. The strides we've seen Durant make in his game over the past three months will likely translate into an improvement in his team's overall offensive efficiency.
The truth is, it already has, but there's still more ground to cover.