Revisiting the Conference Finals: Rim protection

by

I wrote on Tuesday about the Western Conference Finals and how the Spurs’ loss to the Thunder wasn’t a result of one thing gone wrong, instead there were a series of adjustments by the Thunder and flaws exposed over the course of six games. Coach Pop’s “identity theft” theory was certainly one of them, though not the whole story. Note: I promise we’ll move on from the WCF when the real games start.

Well, besides sharing the ball, another area where the Spurs failed was defending the rim. The Spurs were a middle-of-the-road team last season when it came to protecting the rim. We’ve been over the Spurs’ problems protecting the hoop with players not named Tim Duncan before. They have trouble. Where San Antonio helped their cause last year was in simply not allowing those shots at the rim. The Spurs allowed the seventh-fewest shots at the rim per game last season; it’s part of the team’s defensive strategy. If you have trouble stopping a team from scoring around the rim, your best bet is to keep them from getting there in the first place.

Against the Thunder, though, the Spurs were really good at protecting the rim — for a couple of games, anyway. In Games 1 and 2, Oklahoma City combined to shoot 27-59 at the rim, good for a shade under 46%. That’s a great percentage. OKC didn’t shoot above 50% at the rim in either of those games. The Chicago Bulls led the league last season in opponent’s field percentage at the rim with a 56% mark, so giving up below 50% in the playoffs is phenomenal.

In Games 3-6, however, the Thunder combined to shoot 63-98. That’s a 64% clip. OKC didn’t shoot below 60% at the rim in any of those games, which were all, coincidentally, losses for the Spurs. Where it gets a little strange is that, on average, the Thunder took five fewer shots at the rim per game in Games 3-6 than they did in Games 1 and 2 (Granted, Oklahoma City took a crazy 36 attempts at the rim in Game 2, so that skews the Game 1 and 2 average quite a bit), and yet, OKC still had two more converted field goals in Games 3-6 than in Games 1 and 2. And as we said on Tuesday, the average margin of victory in the series was 8.5 points, so four points at the rim each game is a huge issue.

I’ve watched a lot of the Western Conference Finals the last month or so, trying to figure out exactly why this sea change took place, and I can’t for the life of me place it. Perhaps someone with a better trained eye can notice some subtle changes from the first two games to the final four, but I can’t. Tim Duncan was positioned well in the first couple of games to alter shots and bother driving opponents, but I didn’t notice any sort of fundamental shift in his positioning in the Spurs losses that would’ve given the Thunder any sort of advantage. Game 3 was a bit of an anomaly in that OKC got a lot of points at the rim in transition, where any team is going to have trouble protecting the cup. But otherwise, there was no distinct trend that stuck out that led to more baskets at the rim for OKC.

It’s hard to chalk something up to randomness, it seems to go against our very nature as humans. There has to be a reason for everything. Looking at the drastic change in percentages for the Thunder at the rim and then watching the film, something had to have happened, but it’s hard to see what it was that turned the tide. Oklahoma City’s rotation is full of young, talented players who can attack the rim and seemed to gain confidence with every quarter of basketball against the Spurs, surely that factored into the equation some. Until someone smarter than me can point me in the right direction, it’s hard to really know what the catalyst for change was.

All statistics used in this post courtesy of Hoopdata.

  • senorglory

    It helps; you talking about it. I experienced the WCF as a form of trauma, and my auto protective response was to to immediately block it out. I first started to remember how awesome they were last year, then, with the help of your posts, slowly remembered the playoffs and WCF. It really was a great season last year, and that 4 game finale really was a disaster. It’s ok to hurt. We can get through this together.

    (GROUP HUG)

  • Fredgon25

    Yea group hug, because the way the Spurs went down in flames left me walking around dazed all summer. I was angry man, like I could not process in my mind how they went from seemingly invincible to swept away. The worst part for me was unlike other years ( .04 in 04, or Dirk and1 in 06) I couldn’t even focus my rage at one play, or player! No, instead I just quietly simmered with thoughts of a 5th title that wasn’t. No one will ever convince me that just like in 06, the Spurs couldn’t have beat Miami. Grrrr! We was robbed. Well it is at least an odd year come playoff time.

  • STIJL

    Nice Andrew. Thanks for the write up regarding this very topic. What is your view regarding total team defense? And how do you think the Spurs could improve in that area?

    As far as an answer to the befuddlement that was more shots made at the rim…and I can’t recall correctly…but it seemed the Thunder made more of a conscious effort exposing the weak side of the Spurs defense via more passing to open that area for more efficient scoring. Were the Spurs chasing too often OKC players with the ball in their hand?

  • NM-loyalspursfan

    The spurs lost to a team that grew up and realized thier potential. I’m not saying the spurs were not as good as the thunder, but after game 2 the thunder realized the spurs could not stop them if they were patient. The thunder got more shoots at the rim in the later games because splitter lost confidence(the spurs only other shoot blocker) and pop lost some in him resulting in him getting benced and having diaw and blair play center in a series that dictated taking advantage of the opponents weakness and of course small ball gave the thunder the advantage( there are other reasons that contributed as well). The spurs were a few misses away from going to the finals so the team still has room to grow and get better. Should be another good year! Go SPURS Go!

  • aks1507

    I think we lost it in the head. I remember after game 2, young guys like Kawhi, Danny and Corey were talking about just 4 games left. Then when we lost game 3 after not loosing for 20 games it would have sapped the confidence out of them. It showed clearly when Pop removed Danny from starting lineup, Kawhi still did what he was supposed to do, but Danny was important. Tiago has been a trouble for 2 year, I just dont get what’s wrong with him. Sometimes he is solid other time he struggles, he has a problem sticking to the game plan or something.

    So I agree, I have seen these WCF videos and highlights and I can’t pinpoint what was wrong. I remember Ibaka had a crazy night, Harden hit a heart breaker in one game. But nothing significant enough to push from 20-0 to 0-4 … its just frustrating to keep thinking about it without getting any clear answers …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1412856352 Mike Monreal

    I honestly believe if Matt Bonner would of got hurt and not been able to play we would of made it to the finals. Still i blame the series on pop. Moving manu to the starting linup was a panic move IMO. It wrecked danny greens confidence, weakened the bench and completely backfired. When the biggest p
    roblem was Bonner being the first big off the bench.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    Russell Westbrook stopped guarding TP and started guarding the SG on the court, and Thabo Sefolosha started guarding TP. It sapped TP’s energy and gave Westbrook an extra edge. I would look at the number of times Westbrook scored in the paint by game (comparing Games 1-2 to 3-6).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=677881337 Nathan Verney

    Here’s a fun exercise:
    Put on NBA 2K13
    Choose “Creating a Legend” game mode
    Go to Free Agents
    Choose Greg Oden
    It will ask what team to play him on, choose Spurs
    Use all your skill points earned to increase Durability from 25 to 75 or so
    Enjoy!

  • Andres

    here is what i think happened: the spurs system is mostly based on pick and rolls and ball movement (basically because of the lack of a post presence other than Tim Duncan and the fact that good post defenders can now play Timmy straight up). In the first two games the thunder couldn’t figure out how to stop the pick and roll. After that, what they did was have a point guard on the floor with 4 other super athletic 6’7 to 6’9 guys and basically they switch everything. Being so athletic, after they switch everything they were really no mismatches on the floor, this completely disrupted the spurs system. Additionally they went under in every pick and roll with Tony Parker forcing him to threes and long twos, and we all know this is Tony’s weakness. The Thunder’s athletic defenders allow them to do this because of their personnel.
    Basically it was a great adjustment by Scott Brooks. What I learned is that pick and roll basketball is amazing and a princeton style offense is great too, enough to get a team like the Spurs to the conference finals. The thing is, when things get complicated, there is no substitute for having a superstar that commands a double team and play off that ( the thunder have this with Durant). The Spurs used to have that with Duncan in his prime. In the end, that is the simple most effective basketball there is: give the ball to the superstar, draw a double team, pass to the open man.
    This is why for the Spurs to make it to the next level they need two things: great defense and a player that can get double teamed consistently, specially in the low block.
    Unfortunately such assets are very hard to get, so, in the mean time the Spurs are one heck of a team to watch.
    what do you think?

  • Bob

    It wasn’t just the TD but I think the wing defender didn’t shade the offensive player well enough in the later games. In games 1 and 2 I remember the wing defenders being better at forcing the offensive player into the help. It makes it much harder to make a shot when you’re worried about two defenders than a single defender at the rim.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandon.burkhart Brandon Burkhart

    I recall Danny Green missing several wide-open 3s that would have given the Spurs momentum — I was cringing at each clank, knowing the series was slipping away with his confidence. Plus, Bonner was useless as always. I would do a happy dance if we could finally ditch Matt “Never Going to Be Robert Horry” Bonner.

  • JAWS#3

    To me, it goes back to the anomaly of game 4 won by the Thunder, where their bigs as a group (Ibaka, Perkins and Collison) shot for over 80% in the game and mostly JUMP SHOTS. THAT was the difference; if those guys play normal or just play very good games, Spurs still win and go up 3-1. What they did that night will NEVER happen again.

    Like others have said, I believe that Pop lost trust in the system after game 4. However, game 6 was a theft! Anyone can call me a sore loser or a homer, and that the more aggressive team won, but the Thunder were NOT the more aggressive team in game 6. Much of their comeback was manufactured by one-sided officiating and free trips to the charity stripe. EVERY pivotal call in the second half went against the Spurs. I watched in disbelief as they took points off the board from us and whistled fouls against Spurs if they merely shared air space with Durant, Harden or Westbrook.

    I can live with the losses in games 3-5. We just didn’t get it done, but I STILL cannot accept the game 6 result.
    Nor do I believe that we are incapable of beating the Thunder this year. All things being equal, the Spurs can beat the Thunder in a seven game series. We lost three games decided in the last minutes.

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  • http://twitter.com/ifaerman Ivan Faerman

    I agree with EVERYTHING you stated. Ibaka went once 11 for 11 FG, or something like that, with mostly jump shots. That is ridiculous.

  • http://twitter.com/ifaerman Ivan Faerman

    Ibaka 11 for 11, Perkins 7-9 and Collison 4-5. 22-25 FGs OKC’s front court.

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