Revisiting the Conference Finals: Rim protection
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.