The San Antonio Spurs are clearly a team on a mission. After dropping the Trail Blazers in just five games, they’re looking to do the exact same thing with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, it shouldn’t be as easy because this is a team with a top flight point guard at the helm and the league’s MVP. Both of those two will be tough covers no matter who the Spurs try to stick them with or what strategy you try to use.
But with the loss of the Thunder’s third wheel in Serge Ibaka, the team is struggling to find stability on both ends of the floor. Scott Brooks implemented 11 total lineups during their 105-122 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Their starting lineup of Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins put up a net rating of -18.9 in 16 total minutes of play.
By the end of the first half, Brooks was scrambling looking for answers in terms of who to play and what would work. He played nine total lineups in the first half and no lineup exceeded seven minutes of play. There weren’t too many things that were going in their favor at that point–they were lucky to be down only eight points at the half. Between Perkins, Sefolosha and Collison there were only five points scored. The Spurs weren’t worried about guarding any of those players and forced the Thunder to play 2-on-5.
Just take a look at how the Spurs play off of Sefolosha when he spots up. Danny Green is able to fully collapse into the paint on Kevin Durant, swipe at the ball and then recover to Sefolosha in time to force him into an even tougher shot. First, take a look at the video in slow motion. Pay attention to Sefolosha’s shooting gather and how long it takes him to bring the ball up from his hip.
Now, lets take a look at how open he is as Durant’ drives the ball into the paint. Notice how Green chops down on the lane and even finds time to take a swipe at the ball while Durant is dribbling.
Now take a look at how easily Green is able to close out and take away that wide open corner three.
This was happening at an early point in the game. It was difficult for Brooks to continue to ride Sefolosha even though he’s the ideal matchup for Tony Parker on the other end. With about six minutes left in the quarter, Brooks opted to go with Caron Butler as his replacement and things fell apart on the defensive end.
But Sefolosha’s long form is a problem. If he’s getting wide open corner threes, he’s going to need an extra second to gather and shoot the ball cleanly. Running some flare and brush screens for him to the corner and on the wings would certainly help, but that poses a problem in itself because the Thunder’s bigs aren’t being guarded. Take a look at how far off Collison’s man is playing him off of this screen.
Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green are all deep within the paint. Westbrook is basically driving into a brick wall here. Collison is going to get the ball and take the shot in the next frame, but he doesn’t hit it and the Spurs are let off easy. He’s just not the offensive threat that Serge Ibaka would be from the middle of the floor. The Spurs don’t need to guard him or Perkins at this point.
The Thunder tried to counter by playing small and working Durant at the power forward position or the center position. Durant at center was pretty creative and it presents a good idea for the Thunder, but they just couldn’t get any stops to go along with that. In seven minutes with Durant playing center in game 1, the Thunder gave up 114.2 points per possession. It wasn’t any easier with Steven Adams as their center and Durant at the power forward slot. They gave up 129.7 points per possession with that lineup.
Why were they so bad? Because they’ve got a handful of players playing out of their intended roles. Smaller point guards are being asked to crash into the paint and help on rolling bigs on the back end. Take a look at this screen and roll by Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
Tim Duncan is able to take one dribble and find himself at the front of the rim on this roll. Durant, who is an adept defender, is not used to playing this position. This is where Serge Ibaka’s roll on the defensive end becomes key for the Thunder. Even if he’s late on a rotation, Ibaka can still turn a shot away from the rim or at least change it. Durant has no chance of blocking Tim Duncan’s shot or making it too difficult for him to finish the play.
As much as I hate narratives in sports because of how convenient they are, the Ibaka narrative was in full effect in game 1. The Thunder desperately needed him to be there on both ends of the floor and they couldn’t generate much without him. Even with two offensive dynamos in Durant and Westbrook, you’ve still got to have other pieces that fit to the puzzle. The Thunder just couldn’t find those pieces.
I’d look for Brooks to adjust by playing Perry Jones more. He’s a solid defender who offers a bit more spacing than Perkins or Collison at this point. He’s quick enough to chop down on the paint and help on rolls and then rotate back to his man. He’s lengthy enough to get a good contest on shots, but just has to be disciplined in not fouling too often in limited minutes.
This would alleviate a ton of pressure on Durant to play top flight basketball on both ends of the floor. Not that he can’t do that, but against the Spurs Durant shouldn’t be getting attacked as a big man in pick and roll situations. It isn’t healthy for the Thunder and it won’t bring about winning basketball. I’d look for Brooks to make some changes in game 2. At this point, he has to–we just have to wait and see what they’ll be.