If the Thunder continue to switch…
It’s easy to predict the storyline for the next 24 hours. Game 4 is all about Gregg Popovich. How will he adjust to the Thunder’s dominant Game 3 strategy?
If you missed Game 3, or turned your head in shame, Zach Lowe and LJ Ellis have done a fine job chronicling the details of a beat down. In essence, the Thunder did four things — three intentional and one unwitting — to crush the Spurs on Thursday night:
- OKC packed the paint by sagging off three point shooters and throwing a blanket of coverage at Tony Parker
- Brooks used Sefolosha on Parker; Sefolosha’s size and length posed big problems for Parker
- OKC switched on most pick and rolls, often defending the post with a small
It’s unclear whether Scott Brooks intended these adjustments to slow the game down or not, but they did. I suspect he didn’t. But the game was dramatically slower than the Spurs’ usual pace. This was the unwitting adjustment. The Thunder dictated the pace.
How do the Spurs respond?
Thankfully for San Antonio, two of three OKC adjustments have easy counters, but I’ll save those until the end of this post.
Thabo Sefolosha poses the biggest problem for San Antonio. He’s an excellent defender, and Tony Parker is not going to grow between now and tip off. San Antonio’s best counter is to run Sefolosha through a gauntlet of off-ball screens and, in general, play Parker with a second ball handler (Ginobili) so he doesn’t have to initiate the offense.
This directly plays into the Spurs’ other difficult counter. The Thunder’s excessive attention to Parker slowed the game down. The Spurs need to keep a fast pace (as LJ Ellis noted before the series, and we picked up on here and here). In short, San Antonio needs to play at a 100 possession pace. If they do that, they’ll win.
The Spurs’ roster is smart, perhaps the most intelligent roster in the league. But San Antonio was completely flummoxed by the Thunder’s coverage in Game 3. The Spurs gave away 21 possessions via turnover, and they squandered countless others by missing open shooters. A day with Popovich should correct most of this, but so we’re clear, San Antonio best counters are simply returning to what works:
- Pass the ball to the open man. The Spurs frequently missed open 3-point shooters in Game 3. When players like Bonner, Green, Diaw, and Neal have open shots, Parker and Duncan must get them the ball.
- Take the shots. The Spurs did not play with confidence in Game 3. The Spurs are the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. They should act like it. If the Thunder continue to pack the paint, San Antonio needs to make them pay by bombing 3s without hesitation.
- If the Thunder continue to switch on pick and rolls, Popovich should consider giving Blair minutes. Blair always posts good numbers against the Thunder, and, unlike Tiago Splitter, will not have trouble exploiting, say, Derek Fisher on a switch. Splitter is a fine player, but, for whatever reason, could not find a way to take advantage of smaller players when he found them at his back. This is true of Matt Bonner, as well. If Bonner continues to pass on open looks, or is simply not making them, Blair is always happy to come into the game and provide offense. Essentially, I’m arguing for a pragmatic solution over a theoretical solution. In theory, Splitter and Bonner are better players; Splitter provides solid screens and interior defense, Bonner stretches the floor and provides shooting. Blair can’t do those things for San Antonio. But if Splitter and Bonner aren’t scoring, especially in situations where the defense is begging them to score, Blair is a great counter. He will score the ball. That’s about the only thing he does really well and the Spurs needed more of it in Game 3.
I expect the Spurs to win tonight. The Thunder were impressive in Game 3, but in the end they rattled the Spurs with a series of desperation adjustments; the Thunder did not make a series of sound adjustments. With the exception of blanketing Parker with Sefolosha, OKC’s adjustments will come back to haunt them in Game 4.