Time to choose offense over defense
If Oklahoma City is to advance to the Finals, it will be due to some shrewd work by Scott Brooks. The rotation, play-calling and execution all must be top notch if the Thunder hope to derail the basketball juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs. But if Game 1 was any indication, Kevin Durant and the rest of his teammates will find themselves enjoying a summer vacation rather quickly.
Brooks’ decision to stick with Kendrick Perkins has received the most ardent criticism and it certainly is not unfounded. It wasn’t exactly of the same ilk as Doug Collins steadfastly sticking with a horrendous Evan Turner against the Celtics but it might have cost OKC a victory Sunday night.
Offensively, since his knee injury, Perkins has been an abomination and that’s probably putting it mildly. His shooting numbers have dropped while his rate of turnovers have increased, which, as most can surmise, is not a good combination. We do know that this past season Perkins positively impacted the Thunder’s defensive numbers. But it is there that we see the flaw in Brooks’ decision-making.
The Thunder, thanks to the uber-talented trio of Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, are not a defensive team. Their regular season and postseason rankings reflect as much. Yet Perkins, whose main value is mildly improving a team’s defense, saw the floor during the Spurs impressive 4th quarter rally and for 28 minutes all together.
The saying “Defense wins championships” has been the rallying cry around the league for years despite a better understand (and use) of statistically efficient shots (like the corner 3), rule changes (eliminating hand-checking on the perimeter) and the introduction of a European based philosophy (spread pick-and-roll) that has opened up the game. The dirty secret in today’s NBA is that if teams are devastating offensively and merely just “good” on the other end of the floor, they can win championships. The Dallas Mavericks proved that last postseason. Brooks isn’t alone in sticking with the old philosophy that teams must do anything they can to get consistent stops, but his continued use of Perkins will likely cost him wins going forward.
This somewhat misguided notion of adhering to a defense first cliche also goes hand-in-hand with the notion of having a team “stick to what got them here.” Which, for both the Thunder and the Spurs, is scoring lots of points. By playing Perkins so often and for such crucial stretches, Brooks is adamantly trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
Instead, he should take a page from the Mavs playbook and use Collison or Ibaka more frequently hoping to play passable defense on one end while burning the nets up on the other. The result should be a slim net positive for OKC or, in other words, the exact opposite result of playing Perkins.
The Jackson-Leonard debate
The decision to play Stephan Jackson over Kawhi Leonard down the stretch was one of many great decisions by Gregg Popovich. On the surface, it appeared that Leonard was playing very well, but the youngster was, in fact, in the midst of a very up and down performance while checking Durant. On one post up, Leonard allowed Durant to easily get middle, a major no-no given that help awaited him on the baseline.
On another screening action later in the game, Leonard lost focus for a split second and was the forced to take the wrong route chasing Durant on a screen off the ball. The resulting error led to a wide open jumper for KD, which he casually converted.
Athletically, Jackson has no chance of staying in front of Durant, but his work off the ball and positioning on any Durant catch somewhat mitigated that. He flawlessly executed the coverage Pop called for and used his strength to force Durant further off the block on any post catch. Expect to continue to see him down the stretch on Durant, especially if Brooks trots out his smallball lineup.
Gary Neal – The Closeout King
Speaking of smallball, Gary Neal played incredibly efficient fourth quarter minutes while helping the Spurs to their 39-point outburst to close the game. Neal is, by far, the best player on the San Antonio roster (not named Parker or Ginobilli) when it comes to attacking closeouts. Danny Green is a catch-and-shoot player, ditto for Leonard, while Stephan Jackson’s release on his jumper, slowed to the point where it can now be timed with a sun dial, has diminished his efficiency in taking advantage of a scrambling defense.
Neal, however, flashed his skill set all game long, but particularly late. In the fourth, he attacked one closeout by driving by for a lay-up and another by knocking down a catch-and-shoot 3. His ability to use shot fakes, finish at the rim and mid-range while knocking down a high percentage of his outside shots makes him a terror to deal with when he’s spotting up. By Brooks going small with Fisher for the majority of the last period, Pop was able to stick with Neal for the entire fourth, allowing him to be a key factor in the Spurs late run.
Play calling still a mess
That aforementioned run could have perhaps been avoidable had Brooks done a better job with his play-calling throughout the course of the game. The narrative of the Thunder’s offense devolving into a stream of isolations is a tiresome one, but it happened again in Game 1. Down the stretch, OKC stuck to running a ball screen between Westbrook and Durant designed to get Durant the ball in isolation against Jackson at the top of the key. Predictably, that had middling results made worse by the fact the Spurs were piling up points on the other end.
It is really a shame that happened too, because up to that point, Brooks showed off some inverted pick-and-rolls with Derek Fisher and Westbrook, spread ball screen action with KD working with Serge Ibaka and stuck with a set I detailed earlier on NBAPlaybook featuring James Harden in a deep dribble hand-off (DHO).
This set was used for four possessions at the start of the second quarter. Three out of the four times it resulted in clean looks (Sefolosha 2-pt make, Fisher 3-point make, Harden 3-point make). Yet that was the last time Brooks ran it. His decision to abandon that set was probably a result of the last attempt ending in a turnover (Harden just made a bad read) and Westbrook checking back into the game.
It was a knee-jerk reaction to the use of a set experiencing great success (Four trips, eight points, I’m sure most can do the match on points per possession there). And while sometimes small sample sizes hide great flaws in a play that simply works because it’s unexpected, this read-based play has built-in counters and puts the ball in the hands of Harden, a very willing playmaker who will involve his teammates off the action should the read dictate he do so.
It’s just a head-scratching decision to abandon a set that combines personnel and concepts so effectively. The only thing San Antonio could do is try to force Harden to execute a backdoor cut into help, but on top of that coverage being tough to execute consistently, the Spurs showed no signs of aggressively attempting to do so. It is this kind of decision-making that could cost Brooks this series (and perhaps his job), should this matchup between two comparably talented teams end with the Spurs cruising to victory.