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OKC Thunder vs Dallas Mavericks: Three Lingering Thoughts On Game 3 of Conference Finals

As much as I try to leave Game Three behind me, there are still a few things I think are worth re-visiting, both as a Thunder blogger as well as an NBA fan.

1. The Thunder offense is a byproduct of their team make-up. 

If you look at the teams in the league that have the most team assists, you see Dallas, Phoenix, and Boston all in the top five. Those teams are also five of the oldest teams in the league. I think there is a correlation present. As players get older, their one-on-one ability starts to wane, so they rely more and more on a team concept and point trigger men to set up the shooters. Indeed, those three teams have Kidd, Steve Nash, and Rajon Rondo all pulling the trigger to set up the rest of the team. 

On the other side of the coin, you have teams like the Thunder and Miami who are at the bottom of that assist list, despite the fact that those are two of the final four best teams in the NBA right now.

The reason why is because their primary players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James) are primarily ISO specialists. The Heat duo are certainly farther along in their career development, but they, like the Thunder, often struggle with ball movement.

Sebastian Pruiti gave special focus to this problem:

OKC Offense and Lack of Movement | NBA Playbook

I think what is most puzzling about sets like this one that show up too frequently is the stark contrast it bears when the team does run offensive sets. When OKC is actually running a proper offensive play, all of their attributes are on display - superior athleticism, shot-making, and fluidity. 

I think a big part of it continues to be that the Thunder, while possessing a stable of superstar athletes, still do not play their best when at full speed. They have not yet learned how to make quick decisions on the fly, run impromptu sets, or communicate non-verbally. It will come in time, but for the moment I hope that Brooks has the courage to put his hand on some offense more often than not.

2. Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler deserve praise. 

     a) Jason Kidd

I am showing my years a bit here, but I actually remember watching Jason Kidd high school. Specifically I saw him play in the McDonald's high school all star game back in 1992. During that game, which is seldom more than a series of dunks and 3-point shots, Kidd was playing a completely different game. The other kids, they were playing what they thought was a poor imitation of basketball. But was as if he was from a different planet, one where the high overlord was Magic Johnson. Even in limited time on the court, it took me about 2 minutes to understand that he was the best player on the court and he barely even shot the ball.

Of course, we know that his early success has translated into good but not great professional success. He has been to the post-season in 14 consecutive years, but never won a championship. He improbably led the New Jersey Nets to the Finals. Twice. He has been traded three times. He has sometimes clashed with teammates and coaches. He is probably the best fast-break point guard I've seen since Magic.

So even as I root against the Mavericks, it is a pleasure to watch the now 38 year old Kidd orchestrate an offense. He cannot always do what he once was able to do, but when I watch him execute the half-court offense it is easily apparent that he understands the game in a way that nobody else on the court does. To quote the late, great Ralph Wiley:

Jason can do everything related to the game - running, passing out of the halfcourt set, passing on the run, extemporaneously jazz-passing, rebounding, 3-D drive capability, the deep shot, can face up on D, can come off and double, great hands, and, the Unseen Thing, his synapses fire in the currents of the game (in English, he sees the game as it's happening, and thus can dictate what happens next, making it seem as if he has precognition). Jason Kidd is the only NBA player who would be right at home in the "Matrix" trilogy. He'd make Morpheus, Neo and Trinity better. Especially chatty Morpheus. Jason would make him shut up and just play.

     b) Tyson Chandler

Chandler is one of the last hold-outs from the late, failed high school experiment. He was drafted straight out of high school in 2001 and suited up as a teenager in the shadow of Michael Jordan. He, with high schooler Eddie Curry, was supposed to return the Bulls to their glory. Well, you know how that early experiment turned out, as the Bulls spent the better part of the 2000's being actively terrible.

A funny thing happened with Chandler though. His road, which started down the same road as Curry, eventually diverged. Curry became everything that franchises feared about high schoolers - he  was not made of the professional stuff, was self-entitled, unmotivated, and never had the desire to max out his considerable potential. Chandler though...Chandler worked. He worked his way out of Chicago, and then he worked his way into the good graces of Chris Paul and New Orleans. He worked so hard that OKC GM Sam Presti tried to trade for him (a failed physical resulted in a rescission). Now he works his butt off to catch Jason Kidd lobs and get Dirk Nowizki shots at the rim.

What I particularly enjoy in watching Chandler over these past few seasons is that you can tell he has learned to play with two of the best point guards in the league in Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. He has learned how to move, position himself, and be ready when those guys call his number. 

Nine years into his career, Chandler still holds himself out as on of the few high school exceptions. 

3. The difference between Nick and Serge.

In the afterglow of Dirk going supernova on the Thunder in Game One, I wrote that perhaps the best solution was to treat him the same way the Thunder treated Zach Randolph in round two. To be sure they could not be more different, but like most players they still have physical limitations. Like Z-Bo, Dirk does not jump particularly quick or high, but rather relies on superior positioning and unconventional mechanics to get his shot up. Neither one can consistently drive the ball without a hard pump-fake that gets their defender in the air.

When we watched Serge Ibaka challenge Dirk, a few things were immediately notable. Ibaka wanted to rely on his quickness, length, and jumping ability to stop Dirk, so he played Nowizki for the drive and then thought he could recover in time when Dirk elevated for his jumper. What Ibaka did not realize until too late is that once Dirk gets the ball above his shoulders, there is nothing that can be done. As a result, Nowitzki was seldom bothered by Ibaka's length and he had a record night.

Cue Nick Collison. Nick, on the other hand, took the same position against Dirk that he did against Randolph. Instead of giving him the space to threaten a jumper, Nick bodied up against Dirk and made the dribble-drive Dirk's first option. Collison counted on the fact that, while Dirk can drive the ball, he is not quick of foot or in leaping ability, so if he by chance did get past Collison, there was still time for recovery. The entire key to Collison's defense was to get so tight on Dirk that there is no space at all for a quick pivot, just like Collison did against Randolph.

As a result, Dirk was forced into a 7-21, 7 turnover game and never looked comfortable in the offense doing it. Regardless of what some might say, Collison is putting on a clinic in post-position defensive basketball and he is a big reason why the Thunder's defense is giving his team a shot at winning this series.