OKC playing small won’t hurt the Spurs

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In recent comments about the Spurs, Mike D’Antoni said this of the Spurs’ defeat of his Seven Seconds or Less Suns, which were among the great offensive teams in NBA history:

“Back in ’05 and ’07, (the Spurs) played better small ball than we did,” D’Antoni said. “We had always been the best at spreading the floor, moving the ball and hitting threes, but they did it better, and they also had Robert Horry to bring in as an X-factor.

“It was a misnomer to say they beat us on the inside. They spread out better than we did. Pop has always had that element in his game, and it’s evolved into what it is now.”

Perhaps Gregg Popovich’s least understood yet most valuable coaching instincts is his willingness to match. Unlike Don Nelson, a Popovich mentor whom loved to dictate matchups, Gregg Popovich prefers to match opponents, finding guys on his bench that best match whatever unit the opposing coach puts on the floor.

What Mike D’Antoni knows well, Scott Brooks is about to learn.

Coming into the series, smart basketball observers like Kevin Arnovitz called on the Thunder to play more with Kevin Durant at the 4. The Thunder went to that configuration during last night’s loss to the Spurs.

It didn’t work.

The Mike D’Antoni quote above is instructive, and it provides an important storyline for this series.  The Thunder will undoubtedly return to a Durant-at-the-4 lineup this series, but will it matter? Or, put differently, does that lineup hurt or help the Spurs?

Prior to the start of the series, John Hollinger anticipated this maneuver:

A lineup [the Thunder are] likely to use more regularly, however, is with Durant at the 4. This forces a major adjustment for San Antonio, which must either attempt to hide Diaw or Bonner on a perimeter player or go to a smaller lineup of its own. Oklahoma City’s lineups with Durant at the 4 this season were extremely productive — of the six small-ball lineups that played more than 20 minutes, five outscored opponents by more than 12.0 points per 48 minutes.

The average for those lineups was plus-13.0 in 479 minutes, accounting for nearly a third of the Thunder’s point differential edge on the season; the rest of the time the Thunder were plus-4.8…

That’s the good news. The bad news is that they used these lineups against the Spurs in the regular season and still got beat. The Thunder used four smalls for 18, 16 and 28 minutes, respectively, in the three regular-season meetings.

There is no doubt that small is the best way for the Thunder to play. Zach Lowe makes a compelling case: “The Thunder were plus-19 over 43 minutes [in the regular season] against San Antonio when they used Durant at power forward…”

But I’m not convinced. The counter from Popovich is easy (especially now that Ginobili is available—Pop did not have Manu for any minutes against the Thunder earlier this season).  Pop simply covers Kevin Durant with Stephen Jackson or Kawhi Leonard, both of whom are more than capable of playing smallball power forward, and gleefully runs a squad of perimeter scorers to check-in the game.

And that’s exactly what he did last night.

Durant played the entire 4th quarter. The Thunder ran with either Collison or Perkins at center and surrounded Durant with Fisher, Westbrook, and Harden for most of it, although Dequan Cook provided OKC with a short stint at the outset and Thabo Sefolosha was subbed for Fisher late in the fourth quarter.

None of that mattered.

The Thunder ran minus for all but the final minute, which was punctuated by garbage time desperation 3-point attempts.

Stephen Jackson played Durant as well as any coach could expect, and the Spurs took advantage of the opportunity to play the offensively potent three guard lineup of Parker, Ginobili, and Neal. This group was plus-11.  Neal, who also played the entire fourth quarter, ran plus-15.

During last night’s game, @mysynergysports tweeted that “despite [an ill-advised] heat check 3, Gary Neal is still leading the playoffs in scoring efficiency at 1.2 points per-possession.”  I doubt Gregg Popovich minds seeing one of Parker, Ginobili, or Neal lined-up across from Derek Fisher or Dequan Cook. It’s something of an ideal scenario for the Spurs.

In most circumstances, smallball is helpful to the Thunder because it provides an opportunity to force a mismatch for their best player (Durant) and push the pace for a lineup that features Harden, Westbrook, and KD. But as LJ Ellis noted in his pre-series breakdown:

…we’ll hear a lot about how the Thunder want to take advantage of their young legs and get out and push the tempo. The truth, however, is the Thunder would be foolish to think that strategy would work against the Spurs. San Antonio is the most efficient transition team in the NBA and they become virtually unbeatable in fast paced games.

Consider this: In games in which there have been at least 94 possessions, the Spurs have won 21 straight games. Over the same time frame, the Thunder are 11-7 at games played at that pace.

The Spurs had 97 possessions last night. They’ve now won 22 straight in games with more than 94 possessions. The Thunder should re-think small. It’s the right approach most nights, and against most teams. It’s not the right approach against San Antonio.

  • theghostofjh

    Good article. And I agree that the Spurs are difficult to beat in a fast pace game — probably the most difficult in the NBA. But you know what, it’s still the Thunder’s ONLY chance.

    Does anybody really think that the Thunder could beat the Spurs in a slower paced, more half court game? Not on your life. They have absolutely no low-post presence, and they have a point guard that is really a SG, so their half-court execution is far from effective.

    For the Thunder to have ANY chance, they have to get their pace up to 95+, and score 104+. They should really turn up the jets not just after missed FGs and turnovers, but also for much of the time after made baskets.

    And if I were the Thunder, I would play small ball almost exclusively. Perkins would get less than 15 mpg. (compared to the 28 in game one), and I would run mainly with the following guys, in order of minutes played (all would get approximately 20-45 minutes): Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Sefolosha, Ibaka, Collison, Fisher, and Cook. If Bonner was in with Duncan, I’d mainly have Collison as the big. If Splitter was in with Bonner, I’d run mainly Ibaka as the big. If Diaw was in with Duncan (or Splitter), I’d run with any two of these three: Ibaka, Perkins, Collison.

    When the Spurs go small with Duncan as the only big, I’d run with Collison, Durant, Sefolosha, Harden, and Westbrook mainly (sometimes with Fisher or Cook). When the Spurs go small with Splitter or Diaw as the lone big, I’d counter the same, except that I’d have Ibaka as the lone big.

    In the end, the Spurs superior depth, great experience, and coaching acumen will simply be too much for the Thunder. But their chance for an upset is to REALLY push the envelop on their running game, even if it appears to be tough sledding along the way. You don’t put a muzzle on a greyhound. You let them run wild and let the chips fall where they may.

  • lvmainman

    Clearly small ball for the Thunder makes them worse defensively due to no Ibaka or Sefolosha (their best 2 defenders) and enhances the Spurs offense capabilities (more playing time for Neal, apparently the most effective scorer in this NBA’s playoffs). Last night in the 4th qtr the Spurs had 5 players on the floor who could shoot a jumper, dribble drive for a layup, or pass for an assist. That virtually makes the Spurs unguardable on offense.

    I wonder if Brooks will become smart enough to stay big with Perkins/Ibaka or Ibaka/Collison in order to help his team win. Pop would have to counter with Diaw or Bonner neither of whom has been making outside jumpers recently. The one time Durant guarded Diaw on the block, Diaw backed him down and turned baseline for the easiest layup.

    To me the Thunder would be more effective limiting small ball and playing defense to ignite the offense.(That’s how they won vs Fakers being down 7 getting a steal, then a turnover.) Mainly, their halfcourt crunch time offense isn’t that efficient, so try to win with defense and make the Spurs less potent offensively with matchups.

  • Daniel T

    At the end of this series, I expect that OKC might decide that in the future in order to match up with the Spurs they need to trade Perkins for someone that resembles Jeff Green. They worried instead of how they would match up with the Lakers big, and are discovering they do better against the better teams when they play small ball. They might have lost to Dallas again this year if it weren’t for the minutes they used Durant at the four.

  • SpurredOn

    “In games in which there have been at least 94 possessions, the Spurs have won 21 straight games. Over the same time frame, the Thunder are 11-7 at games played at that pace.” – What an excellent bit of information.

    I think I even saw Bonner guarding Fisher for a period of time in the 1st half. With a guard with zero foot speed, Pop can keep Bonner on the floor checking Fisher. Another advantage for the Spurs.

  • Bob

    @Daniel T

    It’s funny how the NBA changes. What forced OKC to get Perkins was to match up with the Lakers. Now if the Lakers dismantle their twin towers there’s no real benefit.

  • Stijl

    For me…giving ideas that might help an opponent defeat my favorite team isn’t something I will voluntarily give. I could care less on what OKC should or shouldn’t do to defeat the Spurs and try to focus more on what the Spurs can do to defeat the Thunder.

  • theghostofjh

    @Stijl

    “I could care less on what OKC should or shouldn’t do to defeat the Spurs and try to focus more on what the Spurs can do to defeat the Thunder.”

    In some respects they’re flip sides of the same coin. Thus, they need to make sure they do the things that most effectively counter an OKC running attack (defensive glass, don’t overshoot the threes, limit the turnovers, get their ass back on transition “D”, and try to pick up some offensive fouls in transition). And the rest is just continuing to do what they do best (ball movement, pick and rolls, disciplined shot selection, etc.).

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