Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote an excellent article today about the Thunder's terrible defensive failures. Be sure to head on over to his site for the full story, but here's an excerpt from his conclusion.
The common theme running through all of these breakdowns — and there have been many more — is not big-versus-small, or poor ol’ Perkins; rather, it’s a lack of clarity and a preponderance of confusion. Offenses in the NBA are so good that a moment of hesitation — just a split-second of misunderstanding — is fatal to an NBA defense. The very best defenses — Chicago, Memphis, Boston, Indiana — are built upon a series of hard-and-fast rules designed to eliminate all confusion. There are general principles, and sub-rules specific to particular opposing players and pet plays. But they are clear, and they are constant, and if you break them, you generally don’t play much. The Thunder have not looked like that sort of team, and that is disturbing at this stage of the season; it’s not as if Westbrook’s minutes are going to guys who haven’t been in Oklahoma City for large portions of this season and last.
So what’s the solution? The bulk of it is probably just to be better — reinforce the rules, or institute new ones, make sure everyone’s on the same page, cut out the stupidity, etc. Brooks may want to think about a quicker hook on the new starting lineup, surrendering points at an embarrassing rate, but he already went in that direction in Game 5, when he went small less than two minutes into the third quarter. And as is always the case with tiny playoff sample sizes, this trend — the sieve-like play of the starting lineup — is only a couple missed jumpers away from reversing itself.
In case you missed it, Lowe basically implies that the Thunder's defense is very prone to error, and illustrates it with a number of plays in his article. His conclusion is right on point. In my opinion, Scott Brooks has made some pretty dramatic changes to his defensive strategy lately. For one, he abandoned the big lineups that he's so fond of playing midway through the series. For two, in Game 5 specifically, he totally abandoned the Thunder's pressure-first strategy. Both of them have resulted in massive defensive confusion as the Thunder try to adjust to the new system. The last adjustment has easily confused Perkins, who looked like he was reading a totally different defensive playbook the night before Game 5.
The bottom line is that Scott Brooks has to find a strategy and stick to it. Making game-to-game adjustments is fine and dandy, but the wholesale changes that he's tried to make to the Thunder's very defensive ethos have confused the heck out of the players. They're still switching and letting Houston use mismatches, but they're not pressuring anymore. What's the advantage of that?
I'd also like to discuss Lowe's last point. Basically, he implies that the starting lineup isn't near what it once was. And when he says this, he's correct. Reggie Jackson doesn't have the freak athleticism that opposing offenses fear, and Kendrick Perkins has been a defensive disaster since Game 3. As a result, the Thunder just don't have a lineup that they can consistently rely on for good production.
I've been pretty adamant all year that the bench was structured poorly. For much of the season, it was run as if Kevin Martin was James Harden 2.0. They tried to have him run isolation plays and create his own shot, which he simply can't do. They admirably changed their strategy as Jackson developed and Fisher came in, but they opened up a new can of worms by throwing together Fisher and Martin at SG and SF. They could mask their defensive shortcomings most of the time, but the reality of having two already horrible defenders miscast in the wrong position really hurt the Thunder during some games. And as Kevin Martin's effectiveness decreased, the Thunder's offensive production with that lineup went down as well. Now, the lineup has no true ball handler and a scorer that's as cold as ice.
So, it's like the Thunder are playing the bench eternally and have forgotten how to play defense. The past few games have been an absolute horror to watch if you're a Thunder fan, but there is a bright side. The offensive production has almost recovered. And if the Thunder can shore that up, then they can certainly find a way to work it out on defense. Right?
For more on the failure of Game 5, check out "Scott Brooks Has Failed. Again."