2014 NBA Playoffs: Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, and exploiting openings

Ronald Martinez

The Spurs are on the verge of winning the title, and they have found success hiding their one lone weakness. How did the Thunder miss their chance?

In Michael Lewis' popular book on statistics in sports, "Moneyball," he chronicled how the Oakland Athletics were able to field contending teams despite having only a fraction of the salary available to other teams in large media markets. It was a remarkable and ground-breaking work of non-fiction, a panacea for small market franchises who hope to compete with major markets over the long term.

This post has nothing to do with that.

Rather, there is one section of passage in his book in chapter 7, titled, "Giambi's Hole" that I fondly recall today:

"A hitter like [Jason] Giambi performed many imperceptible services for his team...This ability, like every other, grew directly from his perfect understanding of the strike zone. He had the hitter's equivalent of perfect pitch, and the young men in the video room are attuned to its value.

"Watch," says Paul, as $17 million a year of hitter steps up to the plate and stares blankly at $237,500 of pitcher. "Giambi's cut the strike zone completely in half." It isn't Giambi's obvious powers that have him excited. It's his self-control, and the effect it has on pitchers. Giambi makes it nearly impossible for even a very good pitcher to do what he routinely does with lesser hitters: control the encounter...

David points to the screen and shows me the sliver of the plate over which a pitch must pass for Giambi to swing at it. The line he traces omits a chunk of the inner half of the plate. "He has a hole on the inside where he can't do much with a pitch and so he lays off it," says David.

Every hitter has a hole. "The strike zone is too big to cover it all," as Paul says. [..] The issue wasn't whether a hitter had a weakness, but where it was. Every pitcher in the big leagues knew that Giambi's hole was waist-high, on the inside corner of the plate. It was about the size of a pint of milk, two baseballs in height and one baseball in width.

Which raised an obvious question: why don't the pitchers just aim for the milk pint? When I ask it, Feiny smiles and shakes his head. "They do," David says. "But he's so good he'll step back and rip one foul into the upper deck. After that, the pitcher won't ever go inside again."

"And his weakness is right next to his greatest strength," says Paul. "If they miss by two inches over the plate, the ball is gone."

(emphasis mine)

The lesson here, which translates to every sport and every team, is that there is always a weakness. Much as Bill Simmons once wrote about players' "90% rule," so too every team is constructed in a way that is designed to ideally maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses, and conversely to maximize the other team's weaknesses while mitigating their strengths. In every encounter, in every sport, it can be condensed down to whether one team or the other can tip their comparative advantages to their favor sufficiently to earn the win.

This is easier said than done, however. The first step is in actually recognizing what the strengths and weaknesses are. For a team like the Thunder, in 75% of their encounters in the regular season, their strength is to simply put the ball in Kevin Durant's or Russell Westbrook's hands and let them go. It is to leave Serge Ibaka in the lane and wait for him to block shots. This works 75% of the time.

In the playoffs however, as you get deeper and deeper, the comparative strengths and weaknesses normalize such that they are not readily apparent, nor do they even stay the same from game to game. This is one reason why last years' Finals between the Spurs and Heat was so scintillating for a basketball junkie - every single game had its own distinct narrative. This is also why most onlookers, including Spurs fans, have been so surprised at the Spurs' methodical dismantling of the 2-time champs this year.

What happened this time around?

Every team has a hole. To win at this stage, you find it and then you create 4 to 5 permutations on offense and defense that force the proton torpedo through the thermal exhaust port. The Heat's sensitive underbelly is their inability to protect the rim, which is why they rely more on steals than blocks (the opposite of OKC) to generate fast break opportunities.

What is the Spurs' hole in their scheme?

After watching these playoffs closely, watching almost as many San Antonio games as Thunder games, I concluded that it is most likely with their guards. What's this, you say? They've got future HoF and former Finals MVP Tony Parker at one side and icy-hot Danny Green at the other! They've got Patty Mills and Cory Joseph backing the point and Manu Ginobili working his Argentinian magic at the SG spot! How could they be weaknesses?

The hole is smaller than that. It really comes down to Parker, and to a lesser degree, his backup Mills. At the point position, the Spurs are vulnerable to opposing point guards who can generate their own offense. To wit:

  1. In the first round, Monta Ellis averaged 26 PPG off of 48% shooting from the floor, including 7-17 from 3-point range.
  2. In the 2nd round, Damian Lillard averaged 20 PPG and 6 assists in a 5 game series loss.
  3. In the WCF, Russell Westbrook averaged a 27-7-6 in 6 games and detonated for a 40-10-5-5-1 in game 4.

Of course the Spurs dispatched each of these opponents, sometimes with frightening ease, but nothing gave them more trouble than a point guard who could both drive to the rim, shoot from the outside, and pass. It is not a lot, and the Spurs have sufficient means to counter it, but with the way they are built, it is the only one that compromises their defense in any material way.

Parker, for all of his wonderful attributes, is not a good defender and the Spurs need to hide him at times so that he isn't exposed the way he was on both ends by Westbrook in game 4. In that game, Westbrook took him to the shed offensively AND defensively. Even in the Thunder's game 6 loss where Westbrook struggled from the floor, he got his way to the free throw line again and again (18 times in all) like a battering ram. The Spurs could do little more than absorb these blows and try to hold on in the 4th quarter and OT.

What happened to the Thunder then? If they had an exploitable hole to target, how did they lose? Just like the passage above says, The Spurs' hole was right next to their greatest strength. The Spurs' greatest strength against the Thunder, at least defensively, was the play of Kawhi Leonard. He bottled up Kevin Durant, holding him to a very pedestrian 26PPG, 3AST, 3TO, and 47.5% shooting from the floor (down 6 points per game from the regular season). The defining change the Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made after Westbrook's game 4 eruption was to switch Leonard onto Westbrook and hope that Danny Green and Manu could hold off Durant. Pop shifted the hole so that it was sitting squarely in front of the Thunder's own Jason Giambi.

The gamble worked. While Westbrook was only marginally slowed down offensively, Leonard's work on him took away just enough of his energy stores so that he was less effective on the defensive end and couldn't create chaos in the passing lanes and ignite the fast break. The risk though, as Lewis points out, was that if they missed closing the hole, Durant could destroy them by himself. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Durant was not up to the task. He was not able to punish the Spurs' defense, committed 7 turnovers in game 6, and shot 2-10 from 3-point range in the final 2 games while getting to the FT line only 11 times and passing for 4 total assists (he averaged 5.5 assists per game in the regular season). Without the ability to penalize the Spurs for compensating for their one weakness, the Thunder lost their comparative advantage and ran out of gas in the end. The Spurs had taken away one opening, left open another, and yet OKC could not adjust to capitalize. They lost.

Which brings us to Miami. LeBron James is at his best, not when he morphs into a scoring freight train, but rather when he compromises a defense from all angles and sets up his playmakers and shooters. The Heat have in Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, and Ray Allen, a collection of guys who at least have the ability to punish a defense that gets lazy or overcommits. Against the Spurs' comparatively weak perimeter defense, opportunities would open.

Here is how they responded:

Wade: 16.3 PPG, 46.2% shooting, 25% from 3-point range, 3.8 TO

Allen: 11 PPG, 48.5% shooting, 42.1% from 3-point range

Chalmers: 3.5 PPG, 2.5 TO, 27.8% shooting

Cole: 3.5 PPG, 1.5 TO, 16.7% from 3-point range

Wade's averages are not terrible, but he has cracked 20 points only once (game 3's blowout, ergo meaningless) and his defense has been an abomination, providing little resistance at all to anyone. He has not attacked the lane hardly at all, and when he did, like in game 4, this was the result (nice touch with the NSFW warning):

Chalmers and Cole have been a disaster. They present zero threat offensively or defensively against the Spurs, as evidenced by their whopping combined 7 PPG. Allen has been the only threat that the Spurs have been concerned about, but even Allen has struggled to find open spaces that come out of their offensive sets. Rather, it tends to come off of broken plays and scrambles for a loose ball.

All of this leaves LeBron with few options to produce dynamic offense. It has allowed Leonard to play LeBron straight up and the Spurs to weather whatever long range shots he hits, because San Antonio is unafraid at anything any of the rest of the Heat's players might do to them. They switch when they need to, fight through screens when they ought to, and suffer nothing at all from the Heat's guard play. The Spurs guard the passing lanes instead of the players, dictate matchups, and Parker can remain on Chalmers and Cole because the Heat have no proton torpedoes to fire. Unless Parker somehow gets switched to guarding LeBron, there is nobody on Miami that can exploit the Spurs' one lone weakness.

The Heat have one last chance to capitalize on the Spurs' window of weakness, and they have to rely on a crew of guards who have yet to make any substantial impact on this series. The opening is there. But as the legendary Omar once said, if you come at them, you best not miss.

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