Thunder Bench vs Nuggets Bench: the Long and Short Of It

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 17: Raymond Felton #20 of the Denver Nuggets is pushed out of bounds by Nazr Mohammed #8 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 17, 2011 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel writes an interesting post about coach Scott Brooks and his approach to using his full cadre of bench players in the playoffs:

Scottie Brooks Shortens the Rotation | NewsOK

While the first half went mostly according to plan with the full force of the Thunder bench coming into play at the beginning of the 2nd quarter, Brooks abandoned what had become his standard 4th quarter rotation by keeping Kevin Durant in the game. Durant finished with a game high 43 minutes played. The action seems natural - it was a four point game heading into the 4th quarter.

Bill Simmons argued a few weeks ago that when it comes to the NBA, there is such a thing as the Law Against Too Many Guys.

This law essentially states that there is a maximum capacity of meaningful minutes that a team can offer, and if each player is performing his role well, then it is difficult to veer too far off of a limited rotation:

"You only need eight and a half guys to win in the NBA: five starters, three bench guys, then an 8½th man who doesn't mind playing 0-10 minutes a night and being on call if a rotation guy gets into foul trouble, gets hurt or whatever. Of those eight and half guys, ideally, you need two scorers, one ball handler, one perimeter defender and one rebounder...You need everyone to know their roles. You need to know who's playing crunch time and who gets the ball in those last few minutes." 

Meanwhile, Simmons said about Denver:

"Every player in their top nine makes complete sense for that specific purpose, especially the Felton/Lawson combo at point. It's like watching the greatest Rucker League team ever assembled...

"OKC has two legitimate crunch-time scorers and Denver has a bullpen-by-committee of "We hope one of these guys gets hot" scorers (always dicey). They now need someone who can score in crunch-time as well as Carmelo Anthony did."

Here is my point. One of the big reasons why the Nuggets were able to thrive late in the season is that they played the ideal style of ball for a high altitude city like Denver. The Nuggets played fast, they played aggressive defense, they maximized their fast break, and they utilized their bench extremely well. The team goes 9-10 deep, and that does make for some breath-taking basketball. As such, I have seen a lot of pro and amateur predictions that the Nuggets depth would be one of the key deciding factors in the series. 

However, knowing what I know about the playoffs, and with the support of Simmons' and Tramel's comments above, I kept asking myself whether the advantage of a deep bench was really fool's gold. There is no doubt that having a quality player who can come off the bench in case one of your starters gets into foul trouble is advantageous, but as we all know, in the playoffs guys are less likely to get into foul trouble early. The refs let them play.

In another vein, think of it this way. It is clear that Nene is going to be the Thunder's Achilles Heel for this series because of his size and ability to play in open space. Now, outside of foul trouble, is there any substantial reason why the Nuggets would keep Nene out of the game longer than they need to, even if their stable of big men (Timofey Mozgov, Chris Andersen) are healthy? In the regular season it makes sense when it's the month of March and there are 25 games to go. But in the playoffs? I would think that Nene is going to eat up every minute that he can to give the Nuggets a comparative advantage.

Lastly, examining the second part of Simmons' quote, I think that the concern about the Nuggets' late-game should be very much a concern for them, and a means for the Thunder to exploit. In the Nuggets' final three offensive sequences, when the Thunder denied their first option they did not have anybody to step up and create a shot for themselves. I thought this analysis was very good in describing what happened:

Nuggets Found Wanting in Game 1 | Roundball Mining Company

In watching the Thunder over the course of the season, we've all seen what tends to happen for them in the final few minutes of games; the offense grinds to a halt and the team is left to rely on Westbrook and Durant. However, what often goes unsaid is that almost every team in the league suffers from the same dilemma, and the Nuggets fell prey to it in Game One. Such is the nature of the playoffs - at the end of the day, a team needs to have one guy who either knows he's going to take the final shot (Kevin Durant), or that he's going to set up someone to take the final shot (someone like Chris Paul). 

Otherwise, we're left with two coaches who, whether he be a 1000 game winner or a 100 game winner, have not proven themselves late in games. Under that scenario, "best player" is almost always going to trump "best team."

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