The night the Thunder evolved
June, 1, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz
Ronald Martinez/NBAE/Getty Images
Thabo Sefolosha had the game of his life. Did Kevin Durant have a game that will redefine him?
We tend to see the shutdown defender as a luxury rather than a necessity, an accessory that can make life easier for the team, but nobody whose absence would be fatal. In case anyone needed evidence that who guards the best opposing player might be influential to the outcome of a basketball game, Thabo Sefolosha provided it on Thursday night.
Sefolosha isn't the offensive equal of any of the marquee names on the Oklahoma City roster, and he's probably not a plus offensive player in the NBA. But does Oklahoma City strike you as a team that needs secondary offensive players to eat up possessions that belong to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden? If ever a team had the capacity to absorb the presence of a non shot-creating defender, the Thunder are it. Go ahead and cash in!
What does Sefolosha bring? He can make a point guard -- even one as dynamic as Tony Parker -- expend more energy going east-west. Sefolosha's length sent Parker drifting off-course all night. Three possessions in particular come to mind.
The first came in the opening minutes of the game. Parker spent most of the possession on the weak side, with Sefolosha in close proximity. The Spurs couldn't find anything because the Thunder defense was amped up. Eventually the ball worked its way up to to Boris Diaw. Parker swept behind Diaw from right to left for the handoff. Though Parker tried to rub Sefolosha off Diaw, Sefolosha slithered over Diaw. The second or two Sefolosha was out of the play was accounted for nicely by Serge Ibaka. With two bodies now on him, Parker passed the ball off to Diaw. With only five seconds on the shot clock, Diaw had to put it on the floor and drive.
The ball never got there. And this is the difference between a possession resulting in Tony Parker penetrating and one in which Boris Diaw penetrates. Which one is preferable?
If you want the better result, you have to work for it -- and the Thunder defense did.
The second took place in the opening minutes of the third quarter with the Spurs threatening to shave their deficit to single-digits for the first time in a while. Parker and Tim Duncan ran the angle pick-and-roll, but Kendrick Perkins (yeah, him) switched as Parker went sideline, playing him flat. Parker could've conceivably attacked Perkins, but the angle didn't offer much. Sefolosha recovered in no time. Just as soon as Parker decided against driving on Perkins, Sefolosha was up into Parker again. Fortunately for Parker, Duncan had popped to the right of the play and had some space just above the circle. In Game 2, the pass from Parker to Duncan would've resulted in a face-up jumper. On Thursday night, Sefolosha was there for the tip.
San Antonio got lucky as they were able to retain possession. Parker scooped up the ball, but there was Sefolosha again in Parker's kitchen. When Boris Diaw administered a pick, Sefolosha fought over it quickly. Parker slung a mischievous behind-the-back pass to Diaw, but it was picked off. Credit Westbrook with the stat, but Sefolosha with igniting the chaos that caused the steal.
Sometimes it seems like the last guy to detect the adjustment is the adjustee. Parker had been so successful at bursting off high picks, he seemed almost incredulous that it wasn't producing the same results. You can't really blame, given the kind of run he's been on.
A few minutes later, Sefolosha again defended Parker up top. After Parker dished the ball off the Stephen Jackson, Sefolosha chased him through a stack on the right blow, then around a Matt Bonner down screen. He trailed by only a step (well above par for any defender on this sequence) and Durant was there, very quick to switch onto Parker as the pass came from Jackson. It's worth mentioning here that Durant has become a decidedly better team defender, even since the start of the season.
The ball moved over to Bonner, whom Sefolosha immediately pinned against the sideline. Bonner barely escaped alive, and shuttled the ball off to Jackson. Who's on Jackson? Sefolosha, courtesy of another switch. (Is this Year of the Switch? Has the Woodson Doctrine been adopted as official league policy?)
Sefolosha smothered Jackson, who, with the shot clock ticking away, had to elevate for an awkward, expertly contested jumper which, naturally, Sefolosha blocked on the way up.
Watching Sefolosha during this sequence, it dawns on you that the reason some guys don’t defend for 24 consecutive seconds is they simply don’t have the endurance to do so. This is why you have the guy on the roster. His final tally tonight in 37 minutes? Nineteen points on 16 shots from the field, six steals, six rebounds, a block and zero turnovers. The Thunder would take half of that from Sefolosha any night and be ecstatic.
Playing Sefolosha doesn't come without a perceived cost -- traditional size -- and Scott Brooks needed some time to fully embrace the viability of his small unit, but he has come around.
Whatever ultimately happens in this series, Game 3 of the Western Conference finals could go down as an important watershed moment in the development of Oklahoma City as a perennial contender for the foreseeable future. It was the night Brooks embraced innovation and, possibly, the night Durant went from a small forward to a power forward.
No team is perfect, and the Spurs have vulnerabilities just like anyone else. You can get off decent shots against them, but you have to tap your imagination. You’re not going to exploit them without tactical expertise and precise execution.
The Spurs don’t like to help from strong side -- and strong side corner is a major no-no. This is one of the bedrock principles of the San Antonio defense which, though it’s not the industrial vise it used to be a few years ago, is still smart and disciplined.
Knowing that, can you turn that discipline against the Spurs? Is that even possible?
At the 8:00 mark of the second quarter, the Thunder set up by having Westbrook attack from the top of the floor, with Durant, Fisher and Collison positioned on the strong side. James Harden stood by himself on the weak side, guarded by Danny Green, who is focused on what Westbrook might be up to. When Westbrook got a strong first step on Parker, going left into the paint, Green was the man to help. With Green now collapsing from the weak side (that's the coverage), Westbrook got deep, then slung a two-handed pass out to Harden in the right corner. Harden had eons, and he drained the 3-pointer.
When Westbrook’s critics get grouchy, it’s because they don’t see enough of this -- Westbrook leveraging all that the speed and strength in that live wire in order to make a cunning basketball play.
How amazing would it be to see that four or five times per night? Any doubt Westbrook could do it if he wanted to?
Just because Kendrick Perkins isn’t nearly as useful in this matchup as he has been in past series doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch him embrace the opportunity to defend Tony Parker at the top of the floor off the switch in the first quarter (inducing a miss). Then again in the second quarter, this time with Ginobili. Perkins held his ground up top and blocked Ginobili's step-back jumper. When Ginobili recovered the ball, Perkins clapped his hands twice. Ginobili never got to the paint -- Perkins stripped the ball and the Thunder went the other way.
As if to remind us that there are tasks he performs as well as any big man in the league, on the break ignited by his strip, Perkins pummeled Ginobili on the high pick up top in transition. This resulted in a crystal clear look at a 3-pointer for Durant.
You have to admire a guy being besieged by criticism (present company included) who answers back.