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Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Not a passing fad?

By Dean Oliver

In Monday night’s victory, the Oklahoma City Thunder did something that had been done just twice in the last 25 years of regular season and playoff games: They scored 133 points and had just 16 assists.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this marked just the fifth time in the last 48 seasons that a team scored more than 130 points and had fewer than 20 assists in a playoff game.

One of the most famous instances happened in 1986, when the Chicago Bulls scored 131 points on just 15 assists against the Boston Celtics. In that game Michael Jordan scored 63 of Chicago's 131 points.

Teams normally don't score this much and have so few assists. They usually share the ball or have a point guard who does a lot of the distribution to keep everyone happy.

Oklahoma City has Russell Westbrook at point guard, a spectacular athlete who believes so much in his athleticism and ability to get a shot off that he sometimes fails to get Kevin Durant touches. Westbrook is a big reason for the team result we saw.

Both Henry Abbott and John Hollinger have written about Westbrook’s shoot-first mentality, but there's an interesting statistical story brewing that they didn’t capture. Oklahoma City led the NBA in total points scored per assist, with 5.23 points per assist. (It was 8.31 in Game 4.) This measure isn’t talked about much, but it is a reflection of teams that get their points off the dribble and at the foul line, not off a lot of kick-outs to shooters or dishes to big men around the basket.

The Thunder’s high value reflects a more individual and athletic game, something that is fair to say about how the Thunder play over good amounts of time. Not surprisingly, the star-driven system of the Miami Heat came in second in this metric during the regular season. Both teams use their athleticism off the dribble to drive to the middle and get foul calls.

Can you guess who is at the bottom of the list? The Celtics and Dallas Mavericks, two of the oldest teams in the league.

Boston now is engaged in a struggle with Miami in a battle of contrasts. The Celtics, thus far, really have been unable to pass the ball well enough to defeat the Miami defense.

In the west, Dallas cruised past the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals. After the sweep, ESPN analysts on the "Mike & Mike Show" talked about how the Lakers weren’t athletic enough, but the Mavericks are old and, if this measure is some reflection of athleticism, they aren’t very athletic, either. The Lakers got beat by old-fashion team basketball.

The league trend is going strongly toward the style of the Thunder and the Heat, with the hand-check rule of 2004 being a key accelerator. The remainder of these playoffs, with the teams at opposite ends of the spectrum standing to face each other, serves as a referendum on what style is winning.