TrueHoop: Thabo Sefolosha
January, 16, 2014
"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Oklahoma City Thunder's starters without Russell Westbrook.
Lineup: Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 100.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 92.0 points per 100 possessions
How it works defensively
Incredibly well when we consider this starting lineup performs 11.2 points better defensively this season with Jackson at the point than the same unit with Westbrook. This prompts the question: How can Jackson, who is no faster or longer than Westbrook and is accountable to the same schemes, possibly be this much of an upgrade?
The riddle is especially confounding after the 2013 postseason debacle. Jackson put up some solid offensive numbers, but the Thunder’s starting unit with Jackson got annihilated against the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. The grouping was minus-31.4 per 100 possessions in 10 games and hemorrhaged defensively to the tune of a 116.0 mark.
Reports that a secretly healthy Rajon Rondo has been suiting up for the Thunder in a prosthetic Reggie Jackson suit this season are unfounded. Jackson’s improvement is his own, born out of increased familiarity with his teammates, coverages and expectations.
Jackson is a lower-stake gambler than Westbrook, who perpetually has one eye on the passing lane. While Westbrook rolls the dice, Jackson makes the sure bet. He’s able to squeeze his way above screens like someone trying to dash into an elevator before the doors close. This allows Ibaka to drop and contest after a short show. When the small defender isn’t playing catch-up and the big guy has the ball handler in front of him, it's advantage: defense.
Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty ImagesMr. January? Reggie Jackson's heady approach has taken the Thunder's defense to a whole new level.
Another theory for the better defensive numbers resides in the notion that Westbrook’s quick shots are more likely to result in run-outs for the opponent. The Jackson Five gives up almost 30 percent fewer fast-break points adjusted to pace. The Westbrook lineup also coughs it up more. Then there’s the defensive glass: This lineup has a better rebounding rate and gives up 30 percent fewer second-chance points. Add up these ancillaries and we start to account for that 11.2-point differential.
The results since Westbrook’s most recent absence confirm the eye test. In the 10 games since Jackson assumed starting duties, not one of his 10 matchups has shot better than 50 percent from the field -- and only one (the man of the hour, Jordan Crawford) shot better than 40 percent.
The schemes don’t differ with Jackson in the lineup. The Thunder have more or less been running the same pick-and-roll coverages for a while -- though Ibaka’s development has enabled him to approach ball screens more situationally. In the parlance of X’s and O’s, the Thunder generally "weak" a high pick-and-roll with the intention of sending the ball handler to his weak hand. Ibaka will still toy with a long show on a high screen, but the hulking Perkins stays put. On side pick-and-rolls, the Thunder push baseline, and Perkins and Ibaka will exert varying levels of pressure on the ball handler.
Durant, Ibaka and, to a lesser extent, Sefolosha give the Thunder uncommon versatility. Durant and Ibaka will switch liberally, and Sefolosha has license to use his instincts as well in tandem with Ibaka, depending on the matchup.
Every coach will tell you he wants to keep his team out of defensive rotations, but some teams treat it as an article of faith, while others regard it more as a general guideline. The Thunder with Westbrook certainly fall into the latter because Westbrook loves to gamble and apply pressure. With Jackson, the Thunder play it more conservatively -- again, more an expression of Westbrook’s temerity than anything Jackson is or isn’t doing.
When the Thunder do get caught in a rotation, Ibaka’s heightened understanding of team defense often saves the day. It’s difficult to overstate Ibaka’s all-around growth on the defensive end. Not long ago, he was a weakside defender more interested in swatting a shot into the fifth row than timing his rotations with precision. In two seasons, his block rate has plummeted from 9.8 to 5.8, and his foul rate has taken a similar dive, but he’s a far better vertical defender than in past seasons.
Amazing to get this far and not address both Sefolosha and Durant. There’s no mystery to Sefolosha. His wingspan puts playmakers in a stranglehold, and he’s still one of the toughest guards in the league to screen.
Durant’s defensive improvement that started in earnest two seasons ago continues its upward trajectory. The light bulb turned on a while back when he realized that while his physical strength is no longer a liability, his length and awareness will always carry him as a defender. Synergy has him ranked third as a pick-and-roll defender among players who’ve guarded more than 50 plays. Against isolation? No. 1, thank you.
Perkins is still wily defensively -- you’ll see him try to jam a screen or buy time for Jackson with all sorts of grabby shenanigans. When Perkins fails, it’s generally a lack of speed that does him in. He doesn’t blow any help situations and the post defense remains steady.
The Jacksonians are due to return to planet earth, but in the Thunder’s ongoing campaign to endow their young backup point guard with confidence, OKC couldn’t ask for better results on the defensive end.
Only marginally better than the Westbrook crew, which has struggled all season, but is still far too reliant on Durant to create shots out of nothing.
Let’s rewind to last spring. The 2013 playoffs against Houston and Memphis were every bit the nightmare for the Jackson-helmed offense as they were for the defense. In 107 minutes, they scored only 84.7 points per 100 possessions. The starters couldn’t establish any pace, plodding at an 85.8 possessions per game. Things are clearly better in Oklahoma City this season for the Jackson-led squad, but the offense still drags for long stretches.
The primary objective in the half court for any Russell-less Thunder unit is to get the ball into the hands of Durant. Achieving this goal is easier if Durant doesn’t spend all his time on the strong side of the court, because the defense can key in on the ball or Durant, but it’s hard to do both. With that in mind, the wide pin-down for Durant on the weak side has been the prototype in the Thunder’s offense, and the Thunder have installed countless wrinkles and reinterpretations.
This is top-grade offense because, whether he’s catching the ball on the move toward the hole or just getting it for an open shot in space, Durant is the most dangerous shot-maker in the league. Under the Jackson administration, the Thunder are still oriented toward this brand of offense. For example, Ibaka will set the down screen for Durant on the right side, off which Durant zips to the perimeter for the catch. Durant can shoot, drive or play a two-man game with Ibaka off the action.
Bart Young/Getty ImagesWithout Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's offense has become more reliant on Kevin Durant than ever.
When healthy, Westbrook is a frequent screener for Durant in these situations, and Jackson has assumed that task on many a set. The Thunder will run Sefolosha up from the baseline around a Perkins-Ibaka stack to receive the ball from Jackson. After delivering the pass to Sefolosha, Jackson will cut to the far side to set the screen for Durant. When Westbrook and Durant run this action (any action) together, it’s a matter for the State Guard, but Jackson can make it work.
Most of the well-worn pages in the Thunder playbook are sets designed to get Durant the ball in position to shoot in the half court. OKC relies on the aforementioned pin-downs. They still love good ol’ floppy action, in which a big man sets a low screen off which Durant flashes to the foul line. They like to post Durant up on the weak side, where he either catches the entry pass after the ball is swung or, if the defender is denying that pass, slips out the back door.
All this is great stuff, but it must be balanced with some other flavors, and, right now, Durant is too self-sufficient when playing with this lineup. Historically, the Thunder’s offense has been at its most efficient when Durant (and Westbrook) share the load with the supporting cast. Last weekend, Durant conceded as much, saying that he needed to take fewer shots.
Jackson’s knowledge of the pro game has grown exponentially, and he understands that his job is to make the game easier for Durant, but he’s not yet at the point where he can ignite the offense on the attack in the manner Westbrook does -- and the Thunder need that spark for a fluid offense.
The Thunder derive a good deal of their offense from early midrange jumpers because they can drain them with proficiency. That doesn’t change in Westbrook’s absence. Jackson, Durant, Ibaka and Sefolosha all hit better than 40 percent from midrange. Finding those shots early is more challenging with Jackson than Westbrook because he’s less lethal on the push, but the Thunder starters with Jackson have had success.
We rarely think of Kevin Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league.”
A drag screen from Ibaka on the secondary break is the mainstay of the Thunder’s early attack, and it does so many things for OKC. Ibaka gives a path to the rim for Jackson, space for Durant, a potential face-up jumper for Ibaka once he pops or a kickout to Sefolosha in the corner against a panicked defense.
The same is true of Durant, who loves to push the ball. We rarely think of Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league. When he rushes the ball up, he and Ibaka routinely look for optimal conditions to run that quick drag screen against a backpedaling defense. Jackson and Sefolosha will stake out a spot along the arc, and Perkins will roost on the weakside baseline (Durant almost always veers right in this situation).
Pace is so vital for the Thunder’s starters, especially since they’re saddled with Perkins. He can’t run the floor, but his presence in the half court presents a dilemma for the Thunder. Situate him along the baseline on the strong side, and he clogs up the driving lane. Place him away from the action, and his defender accepts it as an invitation to play free safety. This is particularly problematic for Jackson, who relies far more on dribble penetration -- and needs more space to do it -- than Westbrook does.
For all the pressure on Jackson, the foundation of the Thunder’s offense is Durant’s ability to make decisions. It’s not as if he’s failing. During the Thunder’s current stint without Westbrook, Durant is logging an assist rate of 29.6 percent -- there’s one non-point guard in the league who’s better (take a wild guess).
When Durant started to put up big assist numbers last winter, Scott Brooks would say that the idea that Durant wasn’t a willing passer early in his career didn’t accommodate for the reality of a young player. Durant wasn’t a point guard growing up, and for the first 15 years of his basketball life, he didn’t have much need or occasion to pass. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but confidence fathered it.
March, 13, 2013
Russell Westbrook | Thabo Sefolosha | Kevin Durant | Serge Ibaka | Kendrick Perkins
Minutes Played: 1,024
Offensive Rating: 110.1 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 96.6 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively
At some point this weekend, Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins will play their 2,000th minute together as a single unit (since the February 2011 trade that brought Perkins to OKC). For all the success this lineup has enjoyed, it still receives a fair amount of grief for its underperformance on the offensive end. Much of that criticism is residual. This was one of the Thunder’s weaker offensive groups in 2011, and again last season.
Whether it’s Durant’s ever-expanding game, Westbrook’s maturation as a floor general, Ibaka’s proficiency as a midrange shooter or Sefolosha’s 62.2 percent true shooting percentage, the Thunder’s starters are now an offensive juggernaut. So as much as we regard Perkins as offensive blockage, or Sefolosha as a liability, this thing works. It’s not perfect, but it’s an undeniably effective offensive group.
This is some very fine machinery, but its inner workings aren’t terribly complicated. The primary reason it hums, of course, is Durant, who has graduated from explosive scorer to offensive fulcrum. He’s making decisions that never would’ve occurred to him three seasons ago.
The old favorites are on display nightly. When Durant is faced up, he sweeps those arms to one side while he glides with a long stride and a single dribble to an open space where he elevates for a jumper. Several times per game, Durant will get double-pindowns from Perkins and Ibaka, pop out to the perimeter, catch, turn and shoot. Nothing fancy, but as half-court offense goes, Durant with a half-second to shoot is probably the hardest play to defend in the league.
The Thunder have also introduced some new wrinkles -- and perfected some old ones -- in large part because Durant’s awareness of his full range of skills has grown substantially. Now when a defender plays on the top side to deny a pass, Durant will signal for a backdoor pass. When Durant is off the ball, he’ll often be presented with a menu of options -- a cross-screen from Sefolosha or, simultaneously, a down screen from Perkins or Ibaka. Durant will read the floor, then choose where he wants to go and how he wants to get there. These days, that process takes Durant barely a nanosecond.
The Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll has grown from experimental to expert this season. Durant’s movement on this play is often something between a pop and a roll -- let’s call it a “proll.” As Westbrook bursts off the screen into the paint, Durant will often float for a second, then dive, so he’s trailing Westbrook. If the pass is there, Westbrook will shuttle a pass behind him to Durant. If a baseline defender has rotated onto Durant, that usually means Westbrook has a clean route to the hoop. Durant will also slip this screen, especially when defenses are in trap mode against Westbrook.
Over the past season and a half, Ibaka has become more than just a high-pick man for Westbrook or Durant. When Ibaka pins for Durant, he’ll simply pop or dive to the basket when Durant catches the pass. With defenses doubling Durant on that action, Ibaka gets a ton of clean looks or open drives, with Durant threading the needle. If Durant is smothered, Westbrook will bypass him and send the ball directly to Ibaka. Both Durant and Westbrook orchestrate more advanced stuff with a lot more confidence than during their early years in the league.
Much of the Thunder’s early offense results from Westbrook pulling up or attacking on the secondary break, or hitting Durant with an outlet pass. Particularly in transition, both Westbrook and Durant are always looking for a body that can precipitate contact. Only James Harden has used more possessions in transition this season than Westbrook, and three-quarters of Westbrook’s possessions on the break result in a drive to the basket or a pull-up jumper.
In the half court, Westbrook is a master of finding seams and holes. Thanks to his accelerated first step, the slightest opening will do. To this end, Ibaka’s ability to extend to the 3-point line has done wonders for this unit’s spacing, and Westbrook is the primary beneficiary. Westbrook isn’t dependent on high screens -- say, relative to a point guard like Chris Paul -- but he’ll use them a fair amount depending on matchup. He’s still a little too eager to take a dribble jumper coming off those picks, but he probably takes more flak than he deserves.
The Thunder will look to attack what they deem as mismatches. Ibaka will get the opportunity to post up when he’s matched against a small-ball 4. Westbrook takes additional liberties against smallish point guards. Durant is almost always a mismatch for his defender, so there’s not much of a variable there.
How it works defensively
Length matters a lot, and it’s a primary reason coach Scott Brooks has stayed faithful to this unit despite calls to go small with Durant at the power forward slot, or to replace Sefolosha with a more potent offensive threat. Since Perkins arrived in Oklahoma City, this five-man combo has remained comfortably below the 100 points per possession mark -- no small feat.
There’s no single way to maximize length as a defensive unit. You can leverage that advantage on the perimeter -- play up on every shooter, trap every ball handler on a high pick-and-roll, and stay home in the corners. The Thunder starters approach it a little differently, with a focus on cordoning off the paint.
It’s a stretch to call what the Thunder do defensively a system, because Brooks encourages flexibility on the defensive end. He’s a firm believer that opposing scorers and facilitators need to encounter a range of defensive looks from multiple defenders. In Brooks’ mind, variety is the best defensive tactic because there isn’t a coverage scheme in the world Tony Parker or Chris Paul can’t crack if you use it enough times.
Brooks empowers his big men to make reads and call out coverages. For instance, Perkins will size up the action, then he might call for a switch, or a trap with Westbrook while yelling for Ibaka to get a full tag on the roll man. When you challenge Brooks about his reliance on Perkins, he’ll explain how important Perkins’ stage direction on defense is to what the Thunder want to accomplish defensively.
Versatility aside, the Thunder’s starters have certain inclinations. They’ll pressure the ball handler on the pick-and-roll. It’s not an aggressive trap, but both defenders will corral the point guard, nudge him away from the paint and toward the sideline. Against the pick-and-roll at the top of the floor, sometimes Perkins or Ibaka will counter with a long show. Ibaka has become extremely confident at containing smaller guys, and he buys plenty of time for teammates who get hung up on a pick.
None of the five starters has any misgivings about being left on an island against an isolation scorer, whether it’s a 6-foot-1 speedster or a bully-baller on the wing. Westbrook and Sefolosha have enormous wingspans and strength, and neither Ibaka nor Perkins backs away from a challenge on the perimeter. On curls, off-ball screens and pindowns, the Thunder switch liberally. They’ll front the post at times and get very aggressive with their ball denial. Westbrook will pick his spots, but it’s not unusual to see him hounding a point guard 30 feet from the basket -- not gambling, just straight-up pressure.
Debate rages over whether Sefolosha is an ace defender, or merely very good. Anecdotes are always dangerous, but if the playoff wins over the Lakers and Spurs are evidence of anything, it’s that Sefolosha can neuter some of the most creative playmakers in the game with his long arms and quick feet. He’s also one of the hardest guards to screen in the game. He’s anticipating, planning for you, and he knows how to evade the screener without losing contact with his assignment.
The Thunder don’t run the defensive scheme Tom Thibodeau fashioned in Boston, but Perkins is still inclined to play that way when he’s defending the basket on the ball side. He’s judicious and somewhat selective about the practice, but he’s definitely still a Celtic at heart, tactically speaking, acting as that “third defender” when the ball works its way to the wing.
Durant’s defense has improved inordinately. That’s not so much the result of better fundamentals as a heightened awareness of what’s materializing behind him. He now understands how to turn a contest of strength (where he might have a disadvantage) into a battle for space. He’s hyperaware of where Ibaka is lurking, looking for any excuse to challenge a shot. Off the ball, Durant has been more eager to crash the paint and has become an expert straddler, maintaining a healthy balance between his wing assignment and the paint, where he might be called upon to collapse on a drive, or pick up a roller.
Ibaka has expanded his defensive game and has become a better decision-maker with regard to space, rotations, when to load up, when to contest and when to resist the urge. That last item is still the most difficult for Ibaka. When you think about the best lanky defensive big men in the league (e.g., Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah), they’ve historically been more concerned about holding down the fort on the weakside rather than swatting shots. With his size and wingspan, Ibaka gives his teammates a lot of leeway as defenders, but only if he times his movements and chooses his spots. So far this season, there’s been an appreciable gain. Now imagine what the Thunder could do defensively if Ibaka gets all the way there.
January, 22, 2013
NBAE/Getty ImagesDevising a strategy against Chris Paul and Kevin Durant is at the center of any Clips-OKC matchup.“Like a playoff game in November” is how Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks characterized the Thunder’s 117-111 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thanksgiving eve.
It was a riveting, but odd game. Chris Paul spent much of the night pinned against the left sideline by Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder’s troop of big men. As a result, Paul logged one of the worst statistical nights of his career.
Blake Griffin battled foul trouble, which disrupted the Clippers’ rotation, as did the absence of Caron Butler. Both teams had prolific spurts when they scored at will, yet there were lengthy stretches when the game became an offensive slog. And neither team put together many big runs. Yet when it was all over, the Clippers and Thunder had played an instant regular-season classic. On Tuesday night, the two teams will face off again, and the winner will leave Staples Center with the best record in the NBA.
It’s still early and the San Antonio Spurs will have a hand in assembling the Western Conference playoff bracket, but the way the standings have started to settle, a Thunder-Clippers matchup with high stakes is highly likely. The Clippers feel they match up well with the Thunder. They’re 3-2 against the Thunder in the Chris Paul era (three of those five games played in Oklahoma City), and one of those losses came in that overtime game. The Clippers' primary worry about a potential matchup with the Thunder -- no wing to match up with Kevin Durant -- was addressed in the offseason when they signed Matt Barnes. No team in the West truly matches up well with the Thunder -- there are only degrees of desperation trying to guard them -- but Barnes helps, as presumably will Grant Hill who has returned from injury.
A faceoff between the Thunder and Clippers presents each team with a series of tough riddles, starting with how to deal with the opposing superstars. Interestingly, the two teams will employ similar strategies against Paul and Durant respectively, largely because they have similar attributes defensively.
The Thunder locked up Paul in the first meeting, and Sefolosha deserves much of the credit. Paul finished with nine points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field with four turnovers and nine assists. On the Clippers' pick-and-rolls, Sefolosha glued himself to Paul’s right shoulder while Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins forced Paul miles from the paint. When Paul was able to get some middle, he would run into a third defender pretty quickly. As far as shooting over Sefolosha, Paul struggled with that, as well.
The Thunder have improved their team defense this season. They rank sixth in the league overall in efficiency (points surrendered per possession). More important, the Thunder are learning some important truths about themselves. They’re beginning to recognize that they have the length and speed to do some very cool stuff defensively. Ibaka and Russell Westbrook would have to break character to thrive in a strict Tom Thibodeau-style defense, but the Thunder are starting to understand they can still apply some of its main principles. Against the Pauls and Tony Parkers of the league, they can afford to load up the strong side of the floor because guys such as Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook have the length and speed to zone up the weak side while Sefolosha and the other big man are harassing the ball.
As dynamic and crafty as Paul is with the ball, he’s a point guard who thrives most when his big man provides him with a solid screen. That means Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom need to give Sefolosha a harder time, give him the right tackle treatment that will allow Paul to split the defenders and get to the middle with a layer of space around him. You can send a third man at Paul once he clears the two pick-and-roll defenders, but with momentum and control, Paul will find a way to make a play for himself (floater, pull-up jumper, little scoop shot or just draw contact for three freebies).
No doubt Paul will spend some time today thinking about how to adjust his strategy against Sefolosha and the Thunder’s defense, and he's unlikely to go 2-for-14 from the floor again Tuesday.
The Clippers’ defense has seen an even more dramatic improvement than the Thunder's, jumping from 18th to fifth in defensive efficiency. The defense had plenty of flaws last season, but a central one was the absence of anyone on the Clippers who could lock down a bigger wing (Eric Bledsoe can pressure the life out of smaller guards, but, at 6-foot-1, you can’t assign him to Durant).
This season, Barnes wasn’t explicitly brought in for the veteran minimum to be the designated stopper, but it’s a job he can handle more than adequately. Durant scored 35 points in 47 minutes on 7-for-19 shooting from the field. Nineteen of those 35 points came at the line, although Barnes was responsible for only three of the nine fouls committed on Durant.
Barnes did a good job of forcing Durant to his left. A gambler by nature, Barnes roamed very selectively as he devoted careful attention to Durant at all times. Jump shots were contested aggressively. Durant turned the ball over six times, four of which can be credited to Barnes on strips and deflections.
There’s no such thing as a Durant-stopper and likely never will be -- and 35 points is 35 points -- but Durant used a ton of possessions to get there. It will be curious to see how Vinny Del Negro assigns the task of covering Durant, especially with Butler in action, but the Clippers have a very nice option in Barnes, something that wasn’t available to them last season.
How the Thunder contend with Paul and how the Clippers contend with Durant are just two facets of a matchup with an endless number of facets. Both teams will be tempted to go small, as they did in the first meeting, but it’s unclear who has the advantage in that scenario. The Clippers are a paint team defensively, more focused on the rim than the arc. Can they find a balance? The Thunder turn the ball over excessively, something that will kill a team against the Clippers. If Bledsoe is the Clippers' best option on Westbrook, someone else has to surrender minutes.
However these questions get answered and regardless of the new ones that surface, one thing is certain: A playoff series between these two teams would be spectacular.
December, 26, 2012
- From Pablo S. Torre's ESPN The Magazine feature on Kyrie Irving, what every eager young basketball player should have in the drawers of his nightstand: pork rinds and Sour Patch Kids.
- At BallerBall, an expanded visual of Russell Westbrook's legs at a 105-degree angle as he launched Oklahoma City's final field goal attempt -- the most controversial shot of Christmas.
- Royce Young of Daily Thunder tackles the prickly question of Kendrick Perkins' usefulness and wonders why Kevin Martin and not Thabo Sefolosha was on the floor for a crucial defensive possession in the game's closing seconds that resulted in an easy bucket for Chris Bosh.
- A video roundup of the notable Christmas Day commercial spots featuring big-name NBA players.
- How many minutes should an NBA coach play a raw, young player? That's one of the most contentious debates in the NBA, and it's one that can drive a wedge between a head coach and management, a fan base and its team, young guys and oldsters in a locker room. Andre Drummond has put up solid numbers per minute in Detroit, but he's not seeing all that many minutes.
- Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting implores Raymond Felton, who has only seven functional fingers, to take a night off: "At last, we may have found the injury threshold at which Raymond achieves self awareness. Yes, Ray. Take the night off. Take a couple if you have to. I don't know why having sore, lifeless hands emboldens Felton to attempt MORE feats of dexterity (now attempting 19 shots per game in December after 14.2 per game in November), but it's really not helping matters."
- Andrew Han of ClipperBlog factored the decision-making judgment of Caron Butler: "Midway through the third quarter, on a secondary break, Caron Butler pulled up for a wide-open 3-pointer. Open as far as the eye can see. So open, in fact, that when he elevated, Iguodala (who was 10 feet away) simply turned around to seek out the impending rebound. But Butler didn’t shoot it. He dished it to an equally wide-open Willie Green for a corner-3, who promptly drained it. I mention it because I wondered why Butler passed on his shot; he’s been an effective 3-point shooter this season. And so I checked the stats: Caron Butler: 37.8% 3PT% from above-the-break-3. Willie Green: 48.3% 3PT% from the corner-3. They were similarly wide open, but Butler understood that the corner-3 is a higher percentage shot, and a much higher one for Willie Green. You play the hand you’re dealt. And while, to others, it seems like you’re on a hot streak, it’s all about counting the odds."
- Jamal Crawford with a move Billy Crystal calls "Shabbat Shalom" ... even on a Tuesday night.
- Keith Smart cast his lot with DeMarcus Cousins last season, a gambit that's become a lot more dicey for the Kings' head coach in his second season with the organization.
- Warriors rookie Draymond Green can't shoot, lacks a natural position even by the more fluid definitions of today's NBA and is putting up some ugly numbers. So how come the Warriors are inordinately better when he's on the floor?
- Something to contemplate as the Hornets get ready for the return of Eric Gordon -- he's a sturdy, efficient defender.
- The Washington Wizards don't do much of anything right, but as Jordan Khan of Bullets Forever illustrates, they sort of know how to press.
- Kendall Marshall celebrates the miracle of touchpads.
June, 21, 2012
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
Should Kevin Durant spend more time checking LeBron James?
It's an open question right now, one with no easy answers.
James Harden has looked hopelessly overmatched when forced to contend with James' unique combination of size, ballhandling and quickness. Even against Thabo Sefolosha -- a superb defender that James himself described as "strong" "active" and "long" after Game 4 -- James was able to spin and pound his way to the paint.
The Thunder countered by occasionally sending double teams, and the Heat perimeter players, especially Mario Chalmers, punished them by hitting 3s and slashing from the weakside.
Ideally, the Thunder would find a way to single-cover James so that they aren't vulnerable to his considerable passing talents, while at the same time keeping him from getting to the paint at will.
Will the Thunder go back to putting Kevin Durant on James? In limited duty in Game 4, while James was tearing up everyone else in his path, Durant did a pretty passable job (see table at right).
The common wisdom is that because Durant picked up five fouls in both Games 2 and 3, when he spent more time shadowing James, the Thunder should hide him elsewhere to ensure he can play the full 48 if necessary.
But only two of those 10 fouls were fouls on James in the half court. Mostly it was a mix of ticky-tack reach-ins, fouls in transition and charges -- plays that have little to do with whether Durant is the one covering James in the high post.
Durant, with his cartoonish length, also has the ability to deny James the catch better than any Thunder player, and that might be the best way to defend him at this point. When James did have the ball against Durant, he settled for three jump shots -- facing up rather than going to his backdown game.
Even if Durant gives them only what they've been getting from their other wing defenders, it would have the secondary benefit of shifting Thabo Sefolosha onto Dwyane Wade. Unlike James, Wade can't just overpower Sefolosha, and indeed has struggled to find his way off the dribble when the long, feisty defensive specialist checks him.
There's also this to consider: What about super-athletic shot-blocking extraordinaire Serge Ibaka? The Celtics' Brandon Bass looked just fine in limited duty against James, and he's nowhere near the athlete that Ibaka is.
It probably wouldn't be wise to apply Ibaka to James for long stretches, but considering that the Thunder's most played lineup includes both Perkins and Ibaka, why not use that size to take away the post-up game and reduce mismatches elsewhere (as in: why is Serge Ibaka guarding 3-point specialist Shane Battier)? When they go small with Nick Collison or Ibaka in the middle, which, as our John Hollinger noted, is by far their best lineup, Durant or Thabo can shift over to James.
Maybe such a change would be too drastic for the consistently conservative Scott Brooks to consider. But after the way James has categorically dismantled the Thunder defense from the post, it would seem a significant change of some kind is necessary.
Then again, the Thunder are a few jumpers here and there from being tied or even leading this series, and over-adjustments can be problematic.
Still, it's hard to imagine the Thunder won't try some new looks -- maybe sending a double to James on the catch or simply focusing on doing more to deny James the ball -- and new defenders on James in Game 5.
June, 21, 2012
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
LeBron has backed the Thunder into a corner with his impressive post play.
LeBron James spent the last two years learning how to win four feet of space.
Four feet. That's roughly the difference between where James was taking his shots during Tuesday night’s brilliant 26-point, 12-assist performance and where he was shooting a year ago in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a disastrous eight-point effort that was the first of three consecutive Heat losses.
Two years. That’s about how long LeBron James has been seriously committed to transforming his post game from an untapped resource to an unstoppable weapon.
Think back to last season. Is there really any doubt about whether this version of James would have manhandled DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd?
When Heat.com's Couper Moorhead profiled James' evolving post game before last year’s playoffs, he stressed that James had become very effective when he could catch the ball with deep post position. In his first season with the Heat, James had improved from visibly uncomfortable on the block to capable of a quick drop step or jump hook, usually with one or no dribble.
In the 2011 Finals, the Mavericks worked hard to take those looks away by fronting James on the low block. In fact they succeeded by forcing him into the exact same position, 18 feet away from the hoop in what's called the "mid post," from where James is now destroying the Thunder.
A review of Game 4 in Dallas shows LeBron catching an average of approximately 16 feet from the rim on his 11 field goal attempts. That's right where he was launching his moves against the Thunder in Game 4, but it's no longer where James starts that necessarily determines where he finishes.
There’s no secret to this development, it’s the product of literally hundreds of repetitions. Despite playing in fewer games, James was in the post nearly 120 more times (about twice as often) in 2012 than he was in 2011, according to Synergy Sports. He didn’t shoot as high of a percentage as he did last season, but he put in the time to make playing from the post, and not just finishing with deep position, second nature.
On Tuesday James and the Heat reaped the fruit of that labor. Time and again, James patiently worked his way toward the basket for layups and hook shots in close. On average, James managed to get seven feet closer to the rim before letting fly with a shot compared to just two feet closer a year ago.
James’ actual jump shot fared no better a year later than it did when Dallas made him look decidedly average. The real difference is that James is just better at getting to his kill zone, particularly out of the high or mid post, than he was last year, allowing him to bring his fantastic passing and finishing skills to bear.
The Heat’s X's and O's have changed a bit, but mostly those adjustments are a reflection of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's commitment to feeding James over and over in that pocket off or just below the elbow. That’s the spot occupied by the power forward in Miami’s offense, a position James once resisted playing but now enthusiastically inhabits.
As a result, James is spending relatively little time running high pick-and-rolls against Oklahoma City. Rather, he often begins many possessions as a screener in the corner or high post. After an initial action designed to loosen up James' defender, he demands the ball. He catches the ball 16-19 feet from the rim, and goes to work. It's easy to diagram and nearly impossible to deny.
Or at least it was in the second quarter of Game 4, when that simple look fueled Miami's dramatic rally. As the Heat trimmed the lead from 13 to three, James made three shots at the rim and assisted to six different Heat players.
Keep in mind that getting James to turn his back to the basket anywhere outside of 10 feet used to be a major victory for the defense. He had (and still has, at times) a tendency to go to his baseline fall away or step back jumper, a comparatively good result for the opposition.
But go ask James Harden about how that strategy is working today.
Late in the third quarter of Game 4, James caught the ball just off of the elbow on the right side of the court. Harden immediately ceded ground, backing up in a desperate plea for James to please just shoot the wide open shot.
James surveyed the floor to figure out where the defensive help would likely come from, then pivoted and moved into Harden with his back. As his Heat teammates ran interference on the other side of the court (and it should be mentioned that his teammates have gotten better at this, as well), LeBron kept his eyes to the middle, scanning for open shooters or a double-teaming defender, and calmly pushed Harden closer and closer to the paint.
Finally, just eight feet from the rim and with Harden summoning every ounce of strength to push him away, James spun baseline off of Harden's shoulder, elevated, and dropped in an almost casual jump hook off the glass that would make any coach grin with pride -- well, except the coach who has to figure out how to stop it.
See, with his size, vision and willingness to hit the open man, James is the last player on the court you want to double team. James won two MVP awards in Cleveland by leveraging these talents on drives the the basket. In the playoffs, however, it becomes harder and harder to find those driving angles and thus trickier to manipulate the defense and find shooters.
So, just as many people advised him to do in unsolicited columns, tweets and shouts at TVs, James found a work-around by developing a new skill set basically from scratch.
It wasn't easy and it didn't all happen at once. It wasn't long ago every James jumpstop in the post was so over-exaggerated you could almost hear him thinking: "OK, now I'm going to try this new move."
But James stuck with it and now floats from post to perimeter without a second thought, at home anywhere on the court. Players often lean on what they know when the pressure is most intense, so it's telling that James is leaning on his post game in the Finals.
The question now is how do you slow James down without leaving shooters alone on the perimeter?
That's Scott Brooks and the Thunder's unenviable task. OKC is playing by the old book on stopping James: use speed and length to keep between him and the basket and fight to front in the low post. Get low and be physical with him and he’ll pass the ball.
But now James is so locked in with his post game that it seems like Nick Collison or Serge Ibaka may be better suited to single-covering him than even ace wing defender Thabo Sefolosha.
Realistically, the only remaining weakness in LeBron’s entire game may be his outside shot, a rare NBA skill that generally improves with age.
Having seen decisive evidence of the hours upon hours of work James logged to become one of the best back-to-the-basket players in the game, who would bet against James also becoming a better outside shooter?
Indeed, who would bet against him at all?
June, 18, 2012
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All Kevin Durant could do was watch as the Thunder coughed up a lead in the third quarter.
When Kevin Durant picked up a fifth foul early in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks didn't flinch. The Thunder were down 11 points and, without Durant on the floor, they would've effectively ceded the game. Big deficits demand desperation, which is why the Thunder incurred the risk of keeping Durant in the game at that juncture of Game 2.
But give that coach a lead and he can be lulled into a sense of false security.
Faced with a less dire situation in Game 3 when Durant picked up his fourth personal foul at the 5:41 mark of the third quarter, Brooks sat his superstar down. The Thunder were leading 60-53 with Dwyane Wade heading to the stripe. Wade drained the front end to shave the Thunder's lead to six points, and on the next possession, Brooks subbed Derek Fisher in for Russell Westbrook, leaving Oklahoma City with a lineup of Fisher, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Nick Collison would later replace Perkins, while Daequan Cook would relieve Ibaka.
By the time the third-quarter horn sounded, the Heat led 69-67 -- a 16-7 Miami run.
Do you sit Durant with four fouls and 18 minutes left in the game? And, if you do, do you also sit your other premier-shot creator because, as Brooks stated after the game, Westbrook endured a tough couple of possessions and needed a blow to calm him down?
There are a few ways to approach the first question. Presumably, the decision to sit Durant for nearly six minutes is to ensure that he doesn't pick up his fifth foul, in which case he'd have ... to sit.
This logic is completely tautological. The Thunder absorb 10-12 possessions without their best player because they run the risk of possibly having to absorb, say, 10-12 possessions without their best player should he pick up a fifth foul. (We can litigate whether it even makes sense to keep Durant off the floor with five, but Brooks answered that question in the negative during Game 2, didn't he?)
In short, keeping a player like Durant on the bench is an insurance policy with four fouls during the final third of the game is an insurance policy that rarely pays for itself. One could argue that, with a lead, Brooks had some wiggle room. But basketball possessions are basketball possessions. If Brooks acknowledges, as he essentially did in Game 2, that Durant's presence is imperative for the Thunder to have a chance, doesn't it follow that a dwindling lead on the road against a top-flight opponent is extremely precarious without that same player?
And why compound the problem by yanking Westbrook? Absent both stars, the Thunder generated seven points on 11 possessions -- more than half of them via Fisher's four-point play on the first possession after Westbrook got the hook.
After that? Three free throws made in 10 possessions over four-plus minutes. The Thunder went from offensive juggernaut to a team that was quite easy to defend. They had to settle for low-percentage stuff, such as a 20-footer from Ibaka (with the defense exerting extra pressure on poor Harden), a 3-point attempt from an off-balanced Sefolosha after a blitzing LeBron James forced the ball out of Harden's hands, Harden sidestepping a high pick for a contested 19-foot jump shot and an awkward dribble-drive by Fisher into the teeth of Miami's interior defense.
The wrong shots from the wrong guys at what amounted to the biggest stretch of the series. Aside from a couple of Harden show-and-foul drives that netted two points at the foul line, the Thunder couldn't manufacture a thing. You can't really fault Harden, as the Heat keyed in on the one guy who could truly hurt them with the ball.
Meanwhile, the Thunder's defense over this stretch did them no favors. Ibaka and Fisher fouled 3-point shooters on consecutive possessions, then Sefolosha got no help on Wade's penetration, which cut the Thunder's lead to 67-64. After that, the aforementioned long Harden jumper resulted in a leak-out opportunity for Wade, who was fouled. One-point game just moments after the Thunder held a double-digit lead. Desperate shots in stagnant offenses tend to produce these kinds of breakaways.
There are certain teams that can subsist without their two most prolific offensive players, but the Thunder aren't one of them. The combined usage of Westbrook and Durant in the regular season totaled 59.2 percent of possessions. Some teams have a system that can accommodate different pieces in well-defined roles. When the Spurs were playing their best basketball during their winning streak, they could throw just about anyone into the mix, and that player could acclimate to the flow of the offense seamlessly.
But aside from the magical offensive glasnost of their conference finals victories over the Spurs -- and much of that fluidity was predicated on the presence of Durant and Westbrook -- the Thunder are a team reliant on shot creation to score.
Remove shot creators from an offense dependent on them, and what are you left with?
June, 13, 2012
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Only two post-ups per game won't cut it for Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in their new world.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Ever since the circus opened in Miami in October 2010, we've heard a zillion reasons the Heat can't win a title with this group:
- LeBron James has a congenital defect that prevents him from being a champion. He can't close, passes up big shots to inferior teammates, is a Beta Male, a head case, too preoccupied with his global brand and, more generally, a schnook.
- James and Dwyane Wade are redundant offensive players who can't coexist unless you introduce a second basketball onto the court. What we get instead are two guys who alternate possessions rather than play within the kind of coherent offensive system usually adopted by elite teams like the champion Lakers, Spurs and, to some extent, the 2011 Mavericks.
- Erik Spoelstra is in over his head. While he's a pretty darn good defensive mind, he's a young coach incapable of managing stubborn personalities like James and Wade, and more sensitive players like Chris Bosh. And all the Rileyisms in the world won't change that.
- The front office in Miami piggishly hoarded top-shelf talent, but forgot to stock the roster with anyone who can be remotely classified as a complete ballplayer or even an effective role player.
- Supernatural powers don't take kindly to disloyalty and televised displays of self-determination to announce future plans. Although this divine being is busy doing other things like making sure the world stays on its axis, he/she/it also governs professional basketball in North America and, boy, is he/she/it pissed at the Heat -- so much so that he/she/it will never allow the Heat to raise the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Not now, not ever.
Take your pick, but nowhere on that list of demerits have we ever found: "The Heat come to the table with inferior individual talent." But after Game 1, that looks like a plausible response.
How good are the Thunder? They can keep James Harden on the bench, not because he’s underperforming or because he's making ill-advised decisions. The Thunder simply didn’t need him because their defensive ace, Thabo Sefolosha, changed the defensive tone of the game and couldn't come out. With Derek Fisher fighting through screens like a champ (nine words I never expected to write in 2012 C.E.), Harden sat for all but seven minutes in the second half.
Can you even imagine your team -- any team -- not needing James Harden in an NBA Finals Game 1? It's ludicrous, but that's what the Heat are up against in their second attempt to capture a title.
The scuttlebutt after Game 1 in Oklahoma City was, "What's wrong with Dwyane Wade?"
Truth be told, only those inside the Heat fortress know for certain but, to state the obvious, a combination of advanced age and a gimpy knee might be the culprits. Wade has put together some phenomenal games in this postseason, but there are certain realities that come with being on the other side of 30 -- the primary one being that there are days you feel invincible and days when there are aches and pains you never knew could exist in a human body.
That ache or pain may cost a player only half a step, but that half-step is often the difference between a blow-by and running into a help defender en route to the rim. That loss of a half-step is all it takes to turn a devastating slasher into a guy who has to work really, really hard for shots.
Unlike other older guys who adjusted their games accordingly, Wade hasn't fully accepted this yet. This isn't to say he's unaware of this condition. There was a morning 18 months ago when you could find Wade on the Heat's practice court working one-on-one with Jerry Stackhouse. Stack was one of this generation's best post-up guards and Wade acknowledged that he wouldn't be 29 forever and developing a post game would be essential to his survival as an elite player.
Wade put these lessons into practice during the regular season. In 2010-11, post-ups represented only 5.9 percent of his individual possessions. This season, that number more than doubled to 12.3 percent
With Sefolosha making life miserable for James, now's the time for Wade to apply those lessons against the Thunder. Wade had only two post-ups on Tuesday night, both against Harden. Neither possession produced points, but both amount to quality offense -- far better than leaning, contested jumpers practically falling out of bounds.
The Heat have rarely had to be resourceful over the past two seasons. They haven't been forced to be crafty, to find workarounds, to explore different facets of their games to exploit an elite opponent's rare weakness. For as long as Wade has played basketball, he hasn't had to resort to anything, except passing out of ferocious double-teams. He set the terms and opponents rarely had the power to negotiate.
Thanks to the Thunder, those days are over. Such is the burden of the underdog.
June, 11, 2012
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty ImagesScott Brooks understands the feeding and caring responsibilities of an NBA head coach.
On a Monday morning last January, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks fielded an easy volley of questions at Santa Monica High School ahead of a game that night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Thunder were mowing through their schedule, having won 11 of their previous 12 games, and Brooks’ breezy tone was fitting for a midseason shootaround. He paid homage to James Harden’s throwback qualities and told the small gathering of media that, even though the Thunder had climbed the ranks of the Western Conference, they had to go out and play each night with something to prove.
After the scrum broke, Brooks was asked whether he could imagine Kevin Durant as his power forward of the future. A pile of data and the general direction of the league both suggested that sliding Durant over to the 4 would make a lot of sense.
Brooks had seen the evidence and, in fact, was the man responsible for those minutes Durant logged as a power forward in the Thunder’s smaller lineups. Schematically, Brooks loved the idea of giving his already potent offense even more opportunities to stretch defenses.
The data were certainly compelling, and what coach wouldn’t be tempted to get another athlete on the floor if all it took was placing the dynamo with the 7-foot-5 wingspan at the 4? Brooks suspected Durant eventually would log more time in small-ball lineups, but Brooks also wouldn’t rush into the future.
In Brooks’ mind, an NBA coach’s job isn’t merely to implement strategic goals on the court but also to have a strong feel for the appropriate timetables of those objectives. He explained that a player like Durant derives confidence from familiarity, and in many respects, it’s one of the factors that makes him such a devastating offensive force. So challenging him to expand the boundaries of the familiar demanded a degree of finesse. Understanding how to lure a player into uncharted territory, asking him to expend more defensively, changing up the composition of the offense he marshals -- that was the trick.
Brooks was confident he could do it, but Durant’s long-term success with that transition would be somewhat dependent on Brooks’ management of that process.
We accept that Oklahoma City’s ascension to the NBA Finals can largely be attributed to the maturation of its young core. By competing at the high-stakes table against the NBA’s notable elite over the past seven weeks, Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha have all developed a more astute intuition about the game.
We chart and revel in the progress achieved by talented young players, but whether it’s because coaches are less interesting than players or because the strides in a coach’s games are more opaque (what’s the coaching equivalent of “he developed a post game”?), we tend to see coaches as static. We might pause for a second and consider that men like Doc Rivers or Alvin Gentry aren’t the same coaches that they were a dozen years ago, but we rarely frame that growth the same way we do for players.
Each of the Thunder’s catalysts has refined his game, and we’ll read plenty about Westbrook’s improved vision and discipline, Durant’s full arrival, Harden’s embrace of the big stage, Sefolosha’s building confidence that he could contain a small army and the rounding of Ibaka’s game.
But it isn’t just the Thunder’s roster that has elevated its game. Brooks has followed the impressive trajectory of his players. A coach who, over the course of his young career, was rarely lauded for his gravitas, charisma or mastery of X’s and O’s has put together a helluva postseason, capped off by a brilliant performance in the conference finals against San Antonio.
The pivotal event in the six games against the Spurs might have been Hack-a-Splitter, which disrupted then irreversibly altered the rhythm of the series. Brooks risked a potential toll offensively by investing his wholesale trust in Sefolosha to stymie Tony Parker. Fully embracing his team’s athleticism, Brooks leveraged that asset in a scheme that both simplified and intensified the Thunder’s defense. He urged Westbrook to cleverly exploit the Spurs’ defensive discipline -- never sending strongside help -- by traversing the court’s midline, which never allowed San Antonio to establish where its help should come from. When the Spurs defenders attacked Durant coming off the Thunder’s bread-and-butter play -- the weakside pin-down -- Brooks introduced wrinkles that helped to free up Durant.
And yes, he also moved Durant to the power forward spot for significant stretches of the series, something we didn’t see him do as readily in past seasons.
Perhaps that’s selling Brooks short -- the idea that these discoveries of the craft have been recent. It’s more likely that Brooks’ abilities have been developing over time, just like his players.
Public opinion tends to shine brightly on systematic high-achiever coaches -- Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Tom Thibodeau, until recently Mike D’Antoni, to a large extent Rick Adelman and now Doc Rivers.
Coaches like Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra, whose most talented personnel thrives on one-on-one play, must rely on offenses far more dependent on shot creation. As a result, their stuff often appears more rudimentary, and we shape our opinions of their creativity accordingly. There are plenty of coaches around the league for whom that might be true, but Brooks doesn’t appear to be one of them.
For some, the verdict on Brooks’ tactical ingenuity may be pending -- let’s see how his team responds in the Finals. For others, the mere fact that, under his direction, Brooks helped deliver a team that was 23-59 three seasons ago to the NBA Finals is testimony enough to his strengths, whether those strengths reside on a whiteboard or in his intuitive understanding of his players.
And on that late morning in January, talking about the delicate process of easing along a superstar, Brooks conveyed the most valuable gift a head coach can have:
Knowing, understanding and caring for his talent.
June, 6, 2012
Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
Can Tony Parker and the Spurs regain their footing against the Thunder?
As John Hollinger pointed out in today’s PER Diem (Insider), turnovers have been an unexpected killer for the San Antonio Spurs.
The Thunder had the league's worst percentage in the regular season, with turnovers on 17 percent of their possessions, while the Spurs were at the other end of the spectrum, ranking second with miscues on only 14.2 percent of possessions. Both teams were near the bottom in forcing turnovers, so the turnover battle figured to favor the Spurs by about three possessions per game.
In reality, the Spurs are flinging the ball all over the gym, with 83 turnovers in the five games compared to just 59 for the supposedly younger and wilder Thunder. On a per-game basis, this is a massive swing -- we expected San Antonio to be plus-3, and instead the Thunder are plus-5. Eight possessions per game, especially the way these teams are shooting, is death -- a nearly nine-point swing. It's the difference between Oklahoma City and Toronto, basically, or between Miami and Golden State.
Why are the Spurs suddenly coughing it up so much?
A thorough review of the video shows some trends. For instance, Tony Parker is now seeing harder hedges and traps on pick-and-rolls -- as are role players like Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard.
Scott Brooks’ biggest adjustment, besides sticking Thabo Sefolosha on Parker, has been asking everyone else to really crowd and pressure the other Spurs and it has been effective.
Gumming up the Spurs' offensive machine
In San Antonio’s system, everyone has a role. For role players like Jackson, Neal, Diaw and Leonard, the roles focus heavily on not doing anything too fancy. If you're open, shoot it. If you're not, pass it.
Not in the job description: putting the ball on the deck three times and making a decision to pass or shoot off the dribble and under duress.
But that’s just what OKC’s pressure is forcing guys like Leonard and Jackson to do.
In Game 3, a blowout win for the Thunder, ace ballhandlers Manu Ginobili and Parker also looked out of sorts as San Antonio struggled to adjust to OKC’s team activity. But in Games 4 and 5, they looked far more prepared to handle that pressure (yes, they both had five turnovers in Game 5, but three of Parker's came from unsuccessfully trying to sell flops and you’ll have to allow for some turnovers when Ginobili is attacking like that).
The real problem in Game 5 was an alarming number of unforced, boneheaded mistakes -- the exact kinds of mistakes veterans are lauded for never making.
Five of the Spurs' 21 turnovers came on fastbreaks, which, during the regular season, they converted for points better than any team in the NBA (according to Synergy Sports). The Spurs average 1.24 points per fast break ... just hanging onto the ball would have likely been enough to win the game.
So on the one hand, it’s tempting to say “well if the Spurs just sort those mistakes out, they’ll be fine.” But the video hints there may be more to it.
A mismatch of team speed
Why are the Spurs turning it over so much? To my eyes, the Thunder’s team speed is giving OKC an advantage in any and every unsettled situation -- whether that’s a 2-on-2 fastbreak or one of the Spurs role players deviating from his prescribed duties.
The Spurs have some very skilled players, but they only have one player, Manu Ginobili, who truly thrives in chaos. Everyone else is best served by sticking to the script.
But the Thunder’s defense keeps ripping out pages.
Still, remove the wild start of Game 5, when San Antonio seemingly couldn’t hang on to the ball regardless of what Oklahoma City was up to, and Game 3 looks more like an outlier than the new norm in this series.
Certainly Oklahoma City’s pressure has irrevocably altered the dynamic between these two teams. But an extra possession here or there is all that separated these two explosive offenses in Games 4 and 5. We probably won’t ever see the Spurs role players with as much time and space to calmly make decisions and shots as they enjoyed during the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make better, more confident choices the next time out.
If the Spurs role players can figure out how to play their game with younger, faster players applying pressure, it might be enough to bring the series back to San Antonio for Game 7.
June, 5, 2012
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James Harden's four-point play was one of those revealing postseason moments we hear about.
We often put too fine a point on identifying the singular moment a team realized its full potential. That process isn’t linear. It usually takes years of growth, consolidation, spurts, slumps, revisitation and then, at last, more growth before the cycle repeats itself.
So nothing definitively changed the Oklahoma City Thunder at the 5:17 mark of the fourth quarter when James Harden drained a 3-pointer after a quick push upcourt by Russell Westbrook, and was fouled by Manu Ginobili on the follow-through. It wasn't the first nor would it be the last jumper in transition Harden makes as a member of the Thunder. The bucket stretched a nine-point lead back to 12, but it was also one of those rare snapshots that captures a different, deeper image of a team at the moment of its ascension.
On the other end, Serge Ibaka had walled Ginobili off the lane, then swatted his scooping layup attempt. Ginobili tumbled out of bounds on his landing, an exaggerated fall that left him little chance to defend the Thunder in transition. The San Antonio Spurs are very quick to the ball, the paint and the corners on the break, but the arc above the break, particularly on the weak side, can be vulnerable. That's where Harden spotted and where a point guard who is often prone to pulling up for his shot passed one up and looked precisely where he should have for an easy dime.
The cycle of maturation hasn't stopped for the Thunder, and they needed timely, contested, not-exactly-high-percentage shots in the closing minutes to fight off the Spurs. They may not win a trophy this season, or at the end of the next one. But when a team seizes an opponent's core strengths -- poise, timing, judgment -- and claim them as their own, it can be profound, especially this late into spring and especially against a team as masterful as San Antonio.
The Thunder have made smart adjustments since the start of the series, and one the Spurs haven't been able to counter has been Westbrook's decision to repeatedly attack the soft spot of the Spurs' defense.
Early in Game 3, it became clear Westbrook was making a concerted attempt to penetrate, then look weak side for an open shooter. That's because, for San Antonio, the helper always comes from the weak side. He might have farther to travel -- and there are going to be possessions when a defender covering the strong-side corner probably could've met the drive near the basket -- but that's all part of playing the percentages. Maturity is essentially the acceptance of a little loss for greater gains, and the Spurs are a very mature team.
Until very recently, the Spurs also had the individual defenders to contain penetration and limit the need for any kind of help. Today, San Antonio features different personnel, while Westbrook can explode. The question for Westbrook was, once he got a step or two off the dribble, could he make plays that could compromise the Spurs' steadfast devotion to keeping the ball-side defense in place -- even if the pull-up jumper is there?
Westbrook's willingness to understand the nature of this scheme has been enormous. There are possessions when he looks like the pointiest of guards, toying with the Spurs so they can't tell which is the strong side and weak side. At about the eight-minute mark of the second quarter, Westbrook worked a pick then a re-pick with Ibaka at the top of the key -- first making the right side the floor dominant, then the left. Daequan Cook was parked in the right corner, with Derek Fisher in the left corner.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were the respective defenders and as Westbrook skidded right, then left, you could see both Parker and Ginobili suspended. Where would Westbrook ultimately commit? Would he streak up the left or right edge of the lane and, if so, who would help?
Westbrook went left on this trip, breezing past Jackson. The instant Parker moved in from the right corner, Westbrook stopped, elevated and slung a pass across the court in the right corner to Cook for an open 3-pointer. One trip later? Same drill. Westbrook tilted the entire floor left, luring Parker on his drive, then found Cook across the court.
These aren't always easy passes to make, which is precisely why the Spurs design the system accordingly. And sometimes it's not a spot-up long-range shooter such as Cook. Increasingly in Game 5, the Thunder made Ibaka the weak-side release. We saw that on a couple of occasions, one late in the first half, the other midway through the fourth quarter. On both possessions, the Thunder set up an angle pick-and-roll -- the first on the left side, the second on the right. Twice, Tim Duncan had to help off Ibaka along the weakside baseline, and twice Westbrook hit Ibaka there for face-up jumpers.
When a point guard can rack up four assists bludgeoning a good team with pinpoint passes off a strong set, an off shooting night became eminently more tolerable.
During the postseason, Scott Brooks has adopted a quaint rallying cry that the Thunder, first and foremost, are a defensive team. While Oklahoma City is a very respectable defensive team -- ranked ninth in the regular season -- the Thunder are still playing basketball because they're an offensive juggernaut. You can't fault Brooks in the least because he's being disingenuous. Part of a coach’s job is to get his team to take leaps of faith, to offer prophecies that he hopes his team will fulfill.
Thabo Sefolosha played 22 minutes in Game 5, as Brooks opted to remain big for much of the game. Much of that can be attributed to Kendrick Perkins working as hard as he ever did in Boston. I didn't believe he had a chance to stick for big minutes in this series, but Brooks has made sure that Perkins has gotten help when he’s needed it. Team Defense is essentially the task of figuring out on your team who needs what, when they need it and for how long.
So when Brooks decided he still wanted Perkins' mass on the floor to limit Duncan's ability to set up either on the block or as a screener, the Thunder coach put the onus on the other guys on the team to use their quickness to cover. They've accepted the challenge nicely.
Regarding Sefolosha, there are so many little moments in a game -- they’ll mostly go unnoticed -- when his defense will drop the slightest particle of dust in the Spurs’ machinery. With just less than five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Sefolosha dug in against Tony Parker way out on the wing to deny what should’ve been a basic entry feed into Duncan off the right elbow. It’s the type of routine pass that triggers basic offensive sets and one that usually goes off without a hitch.
But there was Sefolosha, hounding Parker with all kinds of pressure. Perkins wasn’t make life easy for Duncan, but it was Sefolosha whose work was gumming up the transaction. When Parker recocked to go over the top with more height, Sefolosha scampered off Parker to front Duncan.
Duncan ultimately had to move high to collect the pass -- and did -- but it took four seconds and, by that time, the Spurs' motion had stalled in the half court. That latter consequence is even more important, because that ballet the Spurs performed through much of Game 2 was predicated on continuity. But if you delay that post entry, then everyone on the weak side for the Spurs has to hit pause on the set.
Take away that fluidity, and the gears begin to grind. After that, the Spurs are just another team that’s having trouble getting into its stuff in the half court.
Brooks certainly can't keep Harden off the court after the first few minutes, not when he's plus-24 as he was on Monday night. If Brooks decides to go with two big men during crucial stretches, that means Sefolosha is usually the odd man out. In Game 3, Brooks seemed very comfortable in a world where Durant is the Thunder's power forward -- and that's his best option moving forward. But Perkins intends to make this a very protracted, difficult decision.
The Spurs threw strong double-teams at Durant all night on the wide pin-down that decimated the Spurs in Game 4. Durant was surrounded by bodies whenever he ran high for the catch and, more generally, whenever the Spurs had a body to spare.
The first time Oklahoma City ran the pin-down in the second half just after intermission, Perkins dove to the hole while Durant immediately bounced a pocket pass through the two defenders to hit Perkins on the move. Durant looked to make plays a couple of times before the Thunder found new ways to get him the ball and went away from the call.
Truth is, when a guy with this much length can dominate in a one-on-one matchup anywhere on the floor, it doesn’t demand radical innovation to get the ball to him.
On Monday night, Durant took the hard work upon himself. Sometimes that meant Durant would collect the ball 30 feet out and isolate on a clear-out. Midway through the fourth quarter, Durant attacked Stephen Jackson with a swinging up and under move, then squared his frame airborne before launching a jumper that extended the Thunder’s lead to 10.
At other times, they'd swing the ball quickly to Durant to try to beat the defense. Whatever the case, Durant had to work a bit harder for his shots in Game 5 -- even though he made it appear as easy as ever.
The mutual respect between the Spurs and Thunder can't be overstated and is highly unusual, even in a more fraternal NBA. The Thunder have made no secret about using the Spurs as their organizational template, while Popovich has praised Durant as "arguably the best player on the planet. Even Perkins, who usually enjoys working up a healthy loathing of his opponent, has resorted to casting a broadcasting crew as his adversary.
The lovefest is a huge departure to what's happening back east, where the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics actively loathe each other, something that can't escape detection even in halftime interviews.
June, 4, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Info
Matthew Emmonsj/US PresswireTony Parker needs to get back on track if the Spurs are going to win Game 5.The Western Conference Finals head back to San Antonio for Game 5 tonight at 9 ET with the series knotted at two games apiece.
Spurs Keys to the Game
The San Antonio Spurs are looking to bounce back after suffering back-to-back losses following their near-record 20-game win streak. Both of those losses came on the road, however, and a return to the AT&T Center should provide a spark to the Spurs.
The Spurs are 6-0 at home this postseason, and the big difference has come on the offensive end. They are averaging 15 more points per game at home than on the road, and have thrived around the basket at home, where they are outscoring their opponents by 17 points per game in the paint.
Tony Parker needs to get back on track if the Spurs are going to take Game 5. He really struggled in Games 3 and 4, averaging just 14 points per game on 41 percent shooting.
He wasn’t as efficient running the pick-and-roll, making just 2-of-7 shots on those plays in the last two games, compared to 9-of-15 in Games 1 and 2.
In Game 3 the Spurs failed to produce on the interior, scoring a postseason-low 22 points inside five feet in the loss, nearly half has many points as they averaged in that area in the first two games.
In Game 4, San Antonio couldn't contain the Thunder's perimeter shooting. The Thunder were 19-of-37 (52 percent) from 15 feet and beyond on Saturday, after the Spurs had held them to 42 percent shooting from that distance in the first three games.
Thunder Keys to the Game
It may seem that the Oklahoma City Thunder have seized the momentum by winning Games 3 and 4 on their homecourt, but history suggests that is not necessarily true.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, entering these conference finals, 66 teams did what the Thunder did, winning Games 3 and 4 of a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games. In only 13 of those 66 instances did the team that evened the series with two wins go on to win the series.
In winning the last two games, the Thunder received huge contributions from their “non-Big 3” – Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. That trio nearly tripled their scoring output in Games 3 and 4 compared to Games 1 and 2.
Thabo Sefolosha has been the key defensive player for the Thunder in their two victories over the Spurs. Over the last two games, the Spurs are averaging almost 20 fewer points per 48 minutes when Sefolosha is on the court compared to when he is on the bench.
He has been effective limiting the Spurs guards on pick-and-rolls and when coming off screens. As the on-ball defender in those situations in Games 3 and 4, he allowed just four points (2-of-7 shooting) and forced five turnovers on 12 combined plays.
Stat of the Game
The Spurs have won each of the last five best-of-seven series they have played in which the series was tied 2-2 after four games. That is the second-longest current streak of its kind in the NBA behind the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won eight in a row, according to Elias.
June, 1, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Information
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Thunder excelled with Russell Westbrook (L) on the floor in Thursday's Game 3 win over the Spurs.
The winners of 20 straight contests, San Antonio lost in grand fashion Thursday night to the Oklahoma City Thunder, falling 102-82. It was just the Spurs' third loss this season by 20 points or more, and it was their lowest offensive output in the playoffs.
The Thunder, who now trail 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals, dominated in virtually every way in Game 3, but their advantage in the paint proved to be the difference. Oklahoma City outscored the conference’s top seed 44-24 in the lane. Nearly half of the Thunder’s shots came in the painted area, and they made 52.4 percent of those attempts.
Inside of 5 feet, the Thunder not only excelled offensively but also locked down the opponent. They scored 38 points (19-33 FG) from that distance Thursday night, holding the Spurs to a playoff-low 22 points on 11-of-20 from the field.
Pressure defense was also a key for the Thunder. They had 14 steals, including six by G Thabo Sefolosha, and San Antonio finished with 21 turnovers. That is the most turnovers by the Spurs in a playoff game since 2007, when they committed 23 against the Jazz in a win.
Those turnovers allowed Oklahoma City to get out and run. The West’s second seed outscored the Spurs 23-9 in transition, converting 10 of their 14 field goal attempts. San Antonio managed only two buckets in transition.
In the half court, the Thunder were able to take away one of the Spurs’ main weapons: the pick-and-roll. San Antonio scored 30 points off pick-and-roll plays in each of the first two games of the series, but the team was held to only 12 points on such plays in Game 3.
Tim Duncan finished with 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting. He did set a milestone by passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most blocks in playoff history (478), but it comes with a caveat: Blocks were not an official stat until 1973-74, Abdul-Jabbar’s fifth NBA season.
The Thunder were able to triumph despite star G Russell Westbrook scoring just 10 points. Westbrook contributed nine assists and four steals, though, and Oklahoma City outscored the Spurs by 29 points when he was on the court. Westbrook averaged 22.0 points in losses in Games 1 and 2.
While Kevin Durant poured in 22, it was a pair of unlikely players that provided the punch for Oklahoma City. Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka combined for 33 points in Game 3; they had just 22 points total in the first two games of the series.
If the Thunder continue to control the interior and transition game, they could give the Spurs fits. Tonight’s effort proved that the Thunder are very much alive in this series.
June, 1, 2012
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.
Tom Pennington/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn Game 2, Tony Parker gave Russell Westbrook a full-service workout.
It must have been a cruel irony for Russell Westbrook that a game won largely on the effectiveness of San Antonio’s high picks for Tony Parker aimed at Westbrook was put on ice with Parker taking Westbrook one-on-one off the bounce.
All night, the Spurs had been running Westbrook ragged by pounding him with a wave of screens -- at the top of the floor from the Spurs' big men, off the ball as he tried to chase Parker around the Spurs' land mines. Westbrook's conditioning is among the best in the business, but there are physical and mental tolls to be paid by running into plaster walls, dodging shoulders, fighting through bodies for 50 reps of 20 seconds each. When it all came to a head and the Thunder trailed by eight inside of a minute, Parker milked some clock, crossed over Westbrook right to left, then stepped through and past Kevin Durant before bounding off his right leg for a 4-foot floater.
For Westbrook, it might have been the least trying defensive possession of the night, but Parker still found the net, something he did 16 times from the field in the Spurs' 120-111 Game 2 win. Parker was incredibly proficient as a jump shooter, hitting 11 of his 15 shots from beyond 10 feet. A good number of those looks were wide open, a product of either strong screens early in the shot clock that took Westbrook out of Parker's space, or of clean weak-side looks that materialized after the ball cycled through the Spurs' half-court waltz.
Was Parker the prime beneficiary of a perfect Spurs offense, or was the offense perfect because Parker was driving it? Probably a little bit of both. Once the drive-and-kick game is established, the ball tends to find its way back to the team's best penetrator. When it did, Parker found seams in a Thunder defense that didn't know where the help was coming from quickly enough -- strong side, weak side, top, baseline? Oklahoma City wasn't atrocious, and Durant made a number of timely help rotations, but on a night like Tuesday, Parker gives a defense no latitude to deliberate.
The Thunder invited some of this torment on themselves, particularly early. Kendrick Perkins never left the paint when Parker burst off those high screens from Tim Duncan. With Westbrook occupied trying to fight through the screen, Parker had all the room he needed for a quick pull-up jumper, or to rev his engine before attacking Perkins in open space.
So much of San Antonio's best offense originates in the secondary break or in early offense opportunities. We saw it four minutes into the game, when Danny Green collected a miss on the Oklahoma City end and raced up the right side of the floor. He pitched the ball backward to Parker, who then dribbled diagonally across the court from the right wing to the left elbow.
There were a few promising possibilities here:
- Green was all alone near the right corner
- Duncan trailed down the right edge of the lane on a rim run
- Kawhi Leonard was set up in the strong-side corner.
- Parker was in pretty good position to drive the ball into backpedaling Serge Ibaka and Durant and draw a foul.
Parker saw Leonard, and Leonard saw Parker and, in replay, you can almost pick up the moment of transmission, the instant their brains melded and they both realized the easiest way to get this done was to have Leonard cut to the rim along the baseline, while Parker would jump-stop, elevate, fake the shot but then pass it to Leonard beneath the basket.
The Spurs do stuff in transition that nobody else does. If they aren't careful, they might attract the affection of basketball fans everywhere.
The Thunder aren't going to get this done defensively as a big team anchored by Perkins in the middle. Perkins is still the Thunder's best screener and post defender, but this Spurs team doesn't need to work its offense through Duncan in the post. They're more than happy to bring the action high, let Duncan screen for Parker or Manu Ginobili, put Duncan on the weak-side block and let him set pin-downs to free up cutting shooters.
Scott Brooks finally caught on as his team clawed back at the end of the third quarter, when he brought back Ibaka. If the Thunder seemed like a quicker, more active defensive team after that, it might be because they had their quicker, more active big man on the floor. At that point, the Thunder figured out some coverages that optimized their speed and athleticism. They switched pick-and-rolls when necessary, or let Ibaka corral when he had a good angle on Parker or Ginobili. When the Spurs hit shots for much of the fourth, those attempts were more likely to be outside looks generated out of desperation rather than the result of kick-outs and penetration.
So the Ibaka matter was resolved, but why Derek Fisher played the final 17 minutes of the game was mystifying, while Thabo Sefolosha played fewer than two of the final 18 minutes. Sometimes it’s too easy to critique a coach after the fact, but there was something dubious about Brooks’ decision to stay with Fisher. At critical moments, don't you have to ask yourself as a coach, “What are my goals?” and “Who among my personnel can help me achieve them?”
Who’s the better helper, Sefolosha or Fisher? Who gives you more flexibility defensively? Who’s twice as likely statistically to get you a rebound? Who can make the rotation more quickly? Who’s more likely to stay with Leonard as he curls around two screens to the hole on a baseline out-of-bounds play (Leonard's second-easiest bucket of the night as Fisher trailed)?
What was Brooks' return on that investment in Fisher? A 3-pointer that nipped a 12-point deficit to nine with a hair over two minutes remaining. Apart from that shot, Fisher was 1-for-10 from the field.
It's tempting to play a guy based on past performance or because he's been there before, but at a certain point you have to enumerate for yourself the attributes that can help your team win this basketball game -- athleticism, speed, length, better base defense. Even setting aside the fact that Sefolosha is a 43.7 percent 3-point shooter, while Fisher has shot below 32 percent this season, there's no good reason to stay with a pokey veteran when you're trying to double down on those other qualities.
Another irony: In a game that featured some of the best-looking pure basketball you'll ever see, foul shooting emerged as a major theme in the game's final 15 minutes or so.
The Thunder went to Hack-a-Splitter for five possessions near the close of the third quarter. Tiago Splitter went 5-for-10 from the line, which paid off at exactly a point per possession (an offensive rating of 100). The Spurs averaged 1.085 points per possession in the regular season, and are at a 1.087 clip in the playoffs, so Oklahoma City made a few pennies on the dollar. More important for the Thunder, they unleashed a torrent of ugh into a game that featured one of the most tantalizing renditions of basketball we've seen in years.
It worked for Oklahoma City. The dead ball dance disrupted the Spurs' offense. The ball no longer popped and bodies no longer moved in perfect synchronicity. When the Thunder got into the penalty at the 8:36 mark of the fourth quarter, they were able to contain the San Antonio lead to about 10 and hang around by simply draining free throws.
At a certain point in the first quarter, the Thunder were so desperate to get Durant a look, they put both big men at the elbow to pinch Leonard on a two-man pin-down. The Thunder bring that out occasionally, but the choice was a well-drawn illustration of just how badly they need Durant to pressure the Spurs' defense. The play resulted in Durant's first basket of the night -- a 3-pointer. He finished with 31 points, but was quiet late.