Thunder rolling at the rim

One of the knocks on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s attack this season has been they’re a jump-shooting team. At a certain point, it’s expected that if you live by the jumper then you’re going to die by the jumper when those shots stop falling. However, when you look at how the Thunder actually spread around their shots on the floor, it looks like they’re just an intelligent scoring team.

Throughout the regular season, OKC maximized the value of their shots extremely well. If you’re ranking the quality of shot you can get in an NBA game, I’d put shots at the rim first, 3-pointers second, midtown (anything from the restricted area to 16 feet) shots third and long 2-pointers fourth. 

While the percentages from the regular season to the playoffs have varied a little bit, they’re still pretty much right in line with how OKC attacks you. They try to get to the rim. They try to get freed up for 3-point shots. They try to get closer to the basket rather than settling inefficient 2-pointers from long range.

In trying to figure out what exactly OKC did so well in Game 1 against the Miami Heat, two things really stood out to me: transition buckets and points in the paint. These seem like really simple things to notice and maybe they are. The Thunder had a 56-40 advantage in the paint with 30 of those coming in the second half. They also held the Heat to just nine points on nine transition possessions while scoring 27 points on 22 transition possessions, themselves.

The Thunder took one of the best transition teams in the NBA (Miami was 9th in points per transition possessions on offense, 1st in defense) and turned them into a slower team that couldn’t stop anybody. About half of the Thunder’s transition possessions came on misses from midtown and long-range jumpers. OKC would secure the long rebound, fire the ball up the court and catch Miami napping as they retreated on defense. On only seven of the possessions did the Thunder attempt a jump shot. For the most part, they took the ball and tried to Team RamRod it down Miami’s collective throat.

When Miami had transition opportunities, they settled for 3-point attempts. In fact, of their nine transition possessions, they attempted 3-pointers on four of them (made one in the first quarter), attacked the basket four times and turned it over once. Not a single time did the Miami Heat draw a foul in transition, while in the regular season they managed to draw a foul 11.5% of the time in transition.

And that’s the main difference in how both teams approached the game. The Thunder decided to attack the rim like Jerome James attacks a Hometown Buffet. They just kept going back for more each time. Russell Westbrook had 11 attempts at the rim and it was because he kept going in a straight line when he had the ball. He took off in transition. He took off in isolation. He took off between the trap on a pick-and-roll.

The Thunder seemed to have a gameplan of getting into the paint first and not just stopping for the midtown jumper. Take a look at the shot distribution for OKC in Game 1 of the Finals:

OKC Game 1 Shot Distribution
At the rim: 36/77 = 46.7%
17/77 = 22.1%
Long 2s:
13/77 = 16.9%
11/77 = 14.3%

The 3-point shooting and the long 2s are pretty much inline with how they played in the regular season and in the playoffs thus far. But where the Thunder made their biggest adjustment was instead of just stopping for pull-up jumpers, they kept going into the paint. Nearly half of their shots happened inside. They went for quality shots more often and it paid off to the tune of total domination inside.
It wasn’t just Westbrook and Durant getting to the basket either. They combined for 17 of the 36 attempts inside, while LeBron and Wade attempted 18 shots at the rim. The entire Thunder team was aggressive and that’s including the fact that James Harden had an insignificant game on offense – with just six shots total and two at the rim. The wing players attacked the lane, sucked in the defense and took advantage from failed rotations and players not dropping down to the rim by Miami.

So what’s the answer for Miami?

It could be a lot of things. Personally, I think Joel Anthony has to be on the court for Miami whenever Kendrick Perkins is out there. You might as well have someone to protect the rim if you’re going to play 4-on-5 offensively. After all, that’s what the Thunder have no problem doing with Perkins out there 20-30 minutes each game. Joel Anthony rotates well, knows how to challenge shots and will always be around the rim to attempt to protect it.

It also could just be an effort thing for Miami. There is no doubt that Durant and Westbrook did whatever they wanted on offense. They got a lot of shots that weren’t particularly difficult to manufacture. Dwyane Wade was a saloon door. LeBron James was a good defender but not nearly good enough. Shane Battier seemed to do what he can but there’s only so much athleticism, smarts and length he has to keep Kevin Durant from seeing his shot.

Maybe this is the point in which the Thunder prove to us that they’re simply too good on offense to be stopped. They showed it during the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs series. They’ve dominated the second half of games, just like they continued against Miami. However, Miami’s defense is often much better than that. They find ways to keep you away from the rim (gave up the seventh fewest attempts at the rim this season) and force you into turnovers and harder shots.

We could see a new defensive strategy from Miami that is a lot more aggressive than Game 1. We could see more traps against Durant and force the others around him to win the Finals. We could see LeBron James decide to expend his energy guarding Durant most of the night and pray Dwyane Wade is alive on offense. I’m not sure what we’ll see or what the answer for stopping the Thunder’s offense might be.

If they don’t figure it out, this “jump-shooting team” is going to continue to live at the rim.

Related posts:

  1. Thunder Pick-And-Roll sputters as stars settle for jumpers
  2. Perkins killing Thunder spacing, offense
  3. 5-on-5: What about Chris Paul to the Thunder?
  4. Mavericks-Thunder: Matchup Mayhem!
  5. Memphis thwarting Thunder offense in “Horns” set
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