Scott Brooks’ conundrum
This Western Conference Finals matchup was billed as the prototypical ‘Brains vs. Brawn’ series at its onset but has since been transformed by injury into a chess match, leaving Scott Brooks without one of his vital pieces. The absence of Ibaka – the rook who can swoop across the board in an instant to eviscerate an attacker – has placed the Thunder head man at a serious disadvantage against Grandmaster Gregg Popovich.
Brooks is no stranger to criticism of his lineup and rotation choices. In fact, if there’s one Oklahoma City weakness the basketball enthusiast will point to, it’s the coach’s decision-making in these capacities; without his best defender, there’s now more pressure than ever.
Often viewed as stubborn, Brooks threw the book at the Spurs in Game 1. There were big lineups featuring Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins, and there were tiny ones, with Kevin Durant filling in at center. Each had its moments, but each was incredibly flawed without Ibaka.
One was too slow to keep up with San Antonio’s whirring offense for long stretches on defense, and on the other end was playing 2-on-5 with Durant and Russell Westbrook as the only capable scorers. The other was a blur up and down the court, but the defense was helpless against the Spurs’ bigs. Without Ibaka it’s almost impossible to find that middle ground – go big and you’re too slow, go small and you’re overwhelmed.
Still, even considering these things, there is a blueprint that exists that each team likely remembers well.
There’s a common misconception we’ve all heard about the Spurs: If you pick up the pace against their old legs, they won’t be able to keep up. Attempt this at your own risk, because in doing so you might get slaughtered. The truth is a quick pace is what keeps this team humming, not based on athleticism, but on ball-movement. Unless the opponent is able to force turnovers, make San Antonio miss and create a helter-skelter, broken-court game, speeding things up against the Spurs is instant death. The ball moves faster than the body, and nobody moves the rock like this team.
The Thunder were one of the first to realize this, and I don’t have to remind Spurs fans of exactly when that happened. The 2012 Western Conference Finals left an indelible mark at the top of the NBA food chain. It was during the final four games of that series that OKC truly arrived as one of the league’s elite, and it came with the sudden realization that this team could overwhelm that San Antonio team.
Games 1 and 2 were borderline track meets with an average pace of 98.34 possessions per 48 minutes, and the explosive Spurs feasted, attacking the rim, swinging the ball and launching 3-pointers from every angle imaginable. That San Antonio team — with a completely inexperienced Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter — was a monster on offense, but it was nothing more than average on defense.
Then the Thunder realized: If we make this a halfcourt game we can suffocate them on one end and exploit them on the other. The Spurs weren’t big enough, fast enough or good enough to play that sort of game, and that was soon made clear.
The pace plummeted to 94.71 possessions per 48 minutes over those final four games (all OKC wins), and the talents of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and James Harden dominated the rest of the series. Leonard had no offensive confidence, Green completely faded out of the picture and Splitter was lost in the whirlwind. The Spurs’ gears began to grind, and just like that, the machine on a 20-game winning streak fried under the pressure of the Thunder.
These Spurs are different, though; as are the Thunder without Ibaka and Harden. San Antonio no longer has a smallish roster incapable of matching up, and the young role players are now battle-tested more than most others their age. OKC is currently devoid of a shot-blocking presence, as well as the playmaking, icy Spurs-killer role Harden played so well. Given the state of the two rosters, San Antonio has a clear advantage and a 1-0 lead in the series.
Still, after Brooks’ Game 1 experiment that featured 11 different lineups, one wonders if the Thunder will resort to what they know: If we slow things down, we have a chance.
By now you’ve read the story of Game 1. Without Ibaka manning the middle, the Spurs initated an all-out assault on the rim. They scored 66 points in the paint – the highest total in these playoffs by any team – and connected on 25 of their 29 field-goal attempts from inside the restricted area. The Thunder were helpless without their anchor, and their tendency to gamble on the perimeter backfired mightily as there was no safety net to catch their mistakes. San Antonio won going away, 122-105, and aside from a third-quarter surge that saw OKC jump in front by a point, the Spurs were entirely in control.
Still, there was that one bright spot. The Thunder went on a 17-8 run over the first 6:51 of the third quarter on that back of that big lineup that started the game. In the nine minutes Westbrook, Durant, Collison, Perkins and Thabo Sefalosha spent on the floor during that frame, OKC grinded the game down to a snail-like 93.89 pace, sat back and made the Spurs come to them. San Antonio managed only three attempts from inside the restricted area during that stretch and put up 10 shots from mid-range or the non-RA paint, the two worst shots in basketball, and made just one.
It didn’t last long, though. The Spurs managed to break out of the mud and find their pace again, but it was a reminder of what’s worked for the Thunder in the past. The blueprint is still valuable, but much less so without the required pieces.
The absence of Ibaka’s athleticism is obvious. San Antonio no longer fears the blocked shot and can operate with a clear head, stripping OKC of its intimidation factor. But the domino effect of the injury just exacerbates the problem. A frontcourt that’s normally one of the deepest in the league is now diminished to an extent, and playing guys like Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet or Andre Roberson should only be an option in times of desperation. So while the idea of staying big against the Spurs and maintaining a slower pace over the course of 48 minutes sounds like the best plan, it’s one that’s going to be virtually impossible to sustain.
Perkins simply can’t be used for long periods of time, because eventually the Spurs will wear him out; Adams is still inexperienced and a bit of a liability defending the pick-and-roll; Collison is a very good role player, but when his minutes are extended he becomes much less effective. On top of that, while we’ve spent the majority of our time praising Ibaka’s defense, he’s become one of the best spot-up bigs in the league.
Ibaka has been OKC’s pick-and-pop pressure valve for years now. That jump-shot is nearly as important a weapon as his shot-blocking wingspan, and without it the Thunder are hampered offensively. You can play all the defense you want against the Spurs, but at some point you’re going to have to score against them.
While Durant and Westbrook are clearly the team’s two best players, one could make the argument Ibaka has at least one foot on that top tier in Oklahoma City. His impact on this roster is just massive, and had he gone down earlier, it’s possible this Thunder team never would’ve made it out of the first round. In fact, against those Grizzlies, I doubt they would have.
So you can see the conundrum Brooks has in front of him. He knows what works against the Spurs, but he’s never had to execute this strategy without Ibaka. And the Spurs aren’t going to stop attacking.
San Antonio is only going to become more relentless if certainty begins to set in over the course of the series. Brooks’ wild lineup changes likely caused at least a couple of moments of hesitation for Pop’s guys, but soon enough there may be such a level of comfort and familiarity with OKC’s limited (but still dangerous) personnel that different strategies won’t ultimately matter. The Thunder have to find some way of knock the Spurs off-balance, because once they’ve got a reading on you, once they’ve got you pegged, it’s already over.
But this series isn’t over. Not by a long shot. Not with Durant and Westbrook still alive and well. San Antonio has to step on the throat now and not allow the extra gasps of air that might turn into newfound confidence. A 2-0 lead would tilt the scales overwhelmingly in the Spurs’ favor, and not even the painful memories of the same circumstances two years ago would derail a second consecutive trip to the Finals. One would think, at least.
The defending Western Conference champs are in the driver’s seat, especially given what they already know about the blueprint that beats them. But the Spurs know they can’t stop pushing the ball and staying ultra-aggressive, because this series is theirs to win and they know it. The last thing San Antonio wants is to let Oklahoma City dictate the pace again.
We’ve seen that movie before.
Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals tips off at 8 pm central time and can be seen on TNT. If you’re looking for tickets, visit our friends at TiqIQ.