Should the Thunder Go Small?

Not the greatest matchup, but you've gotta make sacrifices. - Ronald Martinez

The Thunder had a great run during Game 2 with a small lineup, but is it a scenario Scott Brooks should care to repeat?

During Tuesday night's game, we saw the Thunder attempt something of an unconventional strategy against the Grizzlies. Well, it's not exactly unconventional, but it's certainly a first for Brooks, who has always done the opposite when faced with post power. Basically, he went small. For about 5 minutes in the second quarter, the Thunder decided to intentionally subvert the powerful combo of Randolph and Gasol with speed and skill.

The Evidence

What was the result? Well, the group consisting of Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka scored an overall plus minus ratio of +4. But that doesn't tell the full story.

The lineup was most famous for igniting Fisher, who had four straight made baskets during their run. A couple of those were shots he wont normally make (like a contested deep three, or a pull up shot at the free throw line). But it was also a very good lineup for Serge Ibaka, who was able to get wide open for a corner three jumper and take advantage of some pressure defense on Kevin Durant for an easy dunk. In fact, it was probably the only offensively successful time Ibaka has had this whole series.

There were downsides to the lineup, don't get me wrong. It forced Kevin Durant to guard Marc Gasol, who made mincemeat of him in the post. If KD can keep Gasol at least 10 feet away from the basket, he doesn't really have a problem, because he's long and athletic enough to alter Gasol's jumpers. But if Gasol gets the ball on the block, you can forget about it. He was able to hit an effortless hook over KD in the paint, and get KD out of the way for an easy offensive rebound and putback.

Some other things are worth noting, like the lineups Memphis used against the Thunder's small experiment. Initially they went with Ed Davis, but quickly realizing that they could take advantage in the post, they subbed in Marc Gasol. On the perimeter were Conley, Bayless, and Prince or Pondexter, but they really didn't factor very much into the Grizz strategy at the time. Also worth noting is that aside from the Gasol putback, the Thunder were actually effective rebounders during the stretch, outboarding Memphis 3 to 2.

Can it work again?

Speaking in more general terms, I think the lineup could definitely work if put to use again or on a regular basis, but it's definitely a huge gamble. The lineup was successful in Game 2 because they had an array of shooters and were basically able to line up on the perimeter and spread the floor. They also had semi-effective ball drivers in KD and Sefolosha, both of whom were able to draw the defense and kick out to the open shooter. Basically, Memphis was using the same defensive strategy as always, but having two slow-footed defenders in the post really killed them in terms of being able to close out on shooters.

However, this can also make the strategy very risky. It inherently relies on the Thunder's shooters, who haven't been very reliable so far. Sure, Derek Fisher and Serge Ibaka were able to make some great shots, but can they make those shots night to night? And will the ball always get to them? I can only imagine the Grizzlies falling for the illusion of a Martin or Sefolosha drive a few times before they catch on.

Defensively, the risk is even more apparent. Randolph will still have trouble matching up with Ibaka, so not much changes there. But if Gasol receives the ball in the right spot, he can have a field day. Still, this might lead the Thunder to pressuring Gasol (and possibly Randolph). This, to me, is the key to making this lineup work. They've got to lay on the pressure, try to force turnovers, and force the Grizzlies' shooters to step up. Because if the Thunder can turn this game into a footrace, then they're definitely going to start having some serious advantages.

Conclusions

In any case, I don't think that we'll be seeing this strategy very often from Brooks. He's juggling minutes between four big men right now, the Grizzlies really aren't exploiting us on that front, and the Thunder are built on having solid defense in the post. Aside from that, the strategy inherently revolves around trusting your offense, something Brooks tried and failed to do multiple times against the Rockets. The Thunder need to win this series with defense and boards, not offensive tricks.

But, heck, it couldn't hurt to try every once in a while.

Do you want to see more small lineups in this series? Let us know in the comments!

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