Last night's contest against the Magic was a really strange affair. It's not very often that you get to see a game end with a tip-off, and it's also not very often that you see a crowd cheer the referees for reversing a call that actually hurts the home team. If you're unaware of what I'm talking about, a late game Ibaka block was initially called a goaltend, and the reverse of that call forced a tip-off, giving the Magic a chance at tieing the game at the last second. Had the call not been reversed, the Thunder would have possession and the game would effectively be over. The crowd cheered the reversal because a block is generally seen as good, even though a goaltend would have beem arguably more advantageous.
Given the ending of the game, it might be easy to dismiss what happened last night as an outlier. And that line of thinking does have a lot of evidence to back it up. A lot of Thunder players were missing open shots, there were tons of long rebounds and loose balls, and and the Magic didn't really have any big advantage that they were routinely exploiting against the Thunder. Still, the fact remains that the Thunder very nearly gift-wrapped this game to their opponent, and there are lessons to be learned.
1. Floor Spacing. We hear a lot of talk about "floor spacers" in the NBA today, and the Heat are generally accepted as the shining example of what a team with a lot of shooters can do. But the Magic are very quietly becoming another team that heavily utilizes that philosophy. Every single player in their rotation can shoot, and all of them have the green light to hoist it up the second they get any sort of daylight. Tonight, with the Thunder mostly focused on playing help defense in the paint and protecting the rim, the Magic were able to get a ton of open and semi-open shots with very little effort.
2. Weak-Side Offense. Going along with reason number one, the Magic were really adept at getting the ball to the weak side. Because the Thunder like to protect the paint and trap, they're notoriously bad about leaving players on the weak side unprotected. This is especially true when the starters are in the game, because Sefolosha and Westbrook absolutely love to trap.
3. Defrosting the Thunder's Pick and Roll ICE defense. If you're unfamiliar with how a lot of NBA teams ICE the pick and roll, there's a helpful video from Coach Nick here. In that video, he explains that the one weakness of that type of defense is that it gives up free pick and pop plays to the opposing team. Well, the Magic were able to score on a ton of pick and pops last night, forcing the Thunder to adjust their pick and roll defense during the fourth quarter and focus on trapping the ballhandler. Below you'll find one clip of Andrew Nicholson cashing on in this strategy, right before the Thunder adjusted their defense.
1. The bench played too long. Steven Adams and Derek Fisher played until the final 3:38 of the fourth quarter, despite the Thunder not going on any sort of meaningful run during that time. Adams and Fisher certainly have their advantages, but I'd argue that they're the two weakest players in the Thunder's bench rotation, and they were committing critical errors down the stretch. Adams had a shot blocked and committed an offensive foul, while Fisher bricked a pull up three, threw the ball away, and gave up a couple of points defensively.
2. The late game offense was too uncreative. This was a problem when the Thunder were a young team (most notably against the Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference Finals), and it doesn't remain much of a problem today. But it does creep up every now and then, and yesterday's late game offense definitely reminded me of that bygone era.
Anyway, let's get down to the nitty gritty. Here's the six straight offensive possessions that came up totally empty at the end of last night's game.
This play starts off with a basic double screen for Kevin Durant. After receiving both the screens in the post, he attempts to get the ball near the free throw line for an easy shot. Afflalo effectively stays with him through the screens, and KD is forced to create something on his own. Normally he'd post up and shoot a turnaround jumper in this situation, but KD opted to jab step and shoot straight up against the shorter Afflalo. The jabstepping took Durant out of rhythm, and he misses the tough fadeaway.
This play is a very silly mistake. Glen Davis had a minor injury driving to the rim on the previous play, leaving a Thunder player open. Westbrook doesn't seem to realize this, and ignores a WIDE OPEN Sefolosha on the wing. Perk seems to notice Thabo before Russ does, refusing to screen and pointing to Thabo in the corner. But things don't work out like they're supposed to, and a trapping duo of Oladipo and Nelson forces Westbrook into a backcourt turnover.
My apologies for the horrible camera on this one. This play is exactly the same as Play 1, with Durant receiving two off-ball screens and getting the ball near the free throw line. Perk does a good job of reading the play and sets another off-ball screen for Westbrook, who gets an open three. Clank. Ibaka, who was cold all night, manages an offensive board but bricks a turnaround jumper. To be honest this is a well-designed play, but Westbrook simply failed to deliver.
I don't know what to call this play, but I see the Thunder run it a lot. Basically, the point guard goes to one side of the floor, hands it off to a trailing big way above the three point arc, and that big passes it off to a another guard in the high post. From there, the big sets a screen near the top of the key for KD, who attempts to get a shot. The Magic sniff out this play, and KD has to go behind the three point line to get the ball. From there, the Thunder attempt to give KD a simple post-up, but Oladipo nearly steals the ball. The Thunder recover, but time on the shot clock is running out and KD is forced to drive against considerable opposition near the rim. The Magic seize the long rebound and score easily.
At this point, the Thunder have given up on running quality plays and are simply attempting to sit on their lead. The strategy is sound, but Westbrook gets a little bit too aggressive against Oladipo and fires off a very difficult, out-of-control shot.
In this play, the fault lies with Coach Brooks. The Thunder know that the Magic absolutely must force a steal if they want to win the game at this point, so the pressure is obviously coming. Yet there's no play designed to get the ballhandler free. Westbrook is left out to dry, while KD and Ibaka sit on the wing, totally covered. Reggie Jackson has the right idea by heading under the rim (and would have had an easy score had KD been sitting on the three point line in the first place), but by then, it's too late. The Magic get the steal and bring the game within their grasp.
Out of these six plays, only the clanked Westbrook three involved any sort of improvisation beyond the original play. To be sure, the original plays were drawn up well, as they were designed to put the team's two best players in great positions to score. But the Magic knew exactly what was coming, and the Thunder did very little to try and get good shots. Put simply, the ball wasn't moving.
How could the Thunder have done things differently? I'd argue that the problem here was that Westbrook and Durant were in "late game offense" mode. When either of them are in a crunch-time situation, they know that they absolutely must be relied upon in order to score. But by this time, there's usually one or two other offensive threats on the floor, grabbing attention away from them. Usually, Ibaka serves as that threat, with Jackson and Lamb occasionally subbing in as well. But tonight, there was no threat to supplement them, and a huge burden was placed upon their shoulders. Brooks is partially at fault, because was using some really questionable rotations. He left the nearly offenseless Adams and Fisher in the game with the big three. Then, he returned to Sefolosha and Perkins, despite excellent offensive performances from Jackson and Lamb. But, players were at fault as well. Ibaka wasn't having offensive success getting open mid-range shots against Orlando's mobile bigs, so he wasn't much more than an afterthought at this point. Sefolosha had missed three very makeable threes up to this point, and most of his scores came in transition. And Perk? Well, you know....
Of course, there are other factors as well. Westbrook and Durant both missed shots that they can make, so there's that. Also, Victor Oladipo was playing some really, really excellent defense.
But at the end of the day, the lesson to take away from this is one of lineup management. Westbrook and Durant absolutely must have an active offensive threat playing with them at the end of the game if they are to be consistently effective. During this season, the Thunder haven't had a problem finding that threat, but they will have a problem winning games if they continue to ignore who's hot when everything comes down to the wire.
What do you think about last night's near-loss? Let us know in the comments!