I once went to a golf course with my friend on his birthday. We had done a couple of 9-hole courses before, but for the most part were using our parents' old golf clubs and had no idea what we were doing. As we approached the first tee, the supervisor there reassured us that we could take it "nice and slow" on the golf course. We took him for his word, waiting for the next golfers to finish the hole before we made our first shots. But as soon as the golfers ahead of us were off the tee, we were being verbally bashed by the supervisor for not playing fast enough. We then proceeded to tee off, which was an embarrassment in itself. Our balls barely caught air, and tended to spiral wide left or right. Before we could make our third hit, a gentleman in a golf cart came to basically kick us off the course.
What proceeded was the golf cart walk of shame, where we drove slowly behind the gentleman as all the other experienced golfers got to scoff at us. We were eventually reassigned to the 3 hole training course, where we could take as much time as we wanted. As the gentleman escorted us to the "training course", he gave us various bits of advice that would have been useful, were we ever to play golf. One of them was:
"Golf is a target sport."
When he said that, he couldn't have been more wrong. If golf were a target sport, we could have gone to the driving range and not been so embarrassed. Golf is a sport that requires a base amount of skill, speed, and equipment in order for you to not get kicked off the course. If it were a target sport, I wouldn't have to move at all.
The same goes for basketball players. There are tons of dudes out there who can shoot the lights out of a basketball. I'm sure there are at least 10 people on this earth who would dominate Kevin Durant and LeBron James at a jumpshot contest in a local gym.
But the NBA, and the sport of basketball itself, is not a target sport. You have to possess a base amount of skills to succeed at its highest level. We've all seen great college scorers fail to adjust to the NBA's tough defense, and watched them fade away into obscurity. The same could go for a great dunker, or even a great defender. If you
Basketball is a sport of position.
There was no further proof of that than the Thunder's past two games against the 76ers and Hawks. Both Eastern opponents were dealing with injuries and had a huge talent disadvantage, but both of them still managed to give the Thunder a run for their money. Without commenting on the effort given by each team, it's fairly obvious that the Sixers and Hawks possess a serious advantage against the Thunder, and could compete with them on any given night.
The Thunder's Achilles Heel is Speed.
Why is speed so crucial? Well, speed allows you to get into position. And what I saw the Sixers and Hawks do is continually wear down the Thunder with constant ball movement. Once our opponents have swung the ball across the court more than once, the Thunder have usually committed to a trap or switch, and OKC's entire defense is scrambling. This allowed the leaner lineups of our Eastern foes to converge upon the paint before any of our big men could react, giving them easy shots. I'm not only talking about guards who sneak in for uncontested layups. I'm also talking about undersized big men who were able score on larger defenders simply because they're so close to the basket.
Of course, Philadelphia was the more extreme case. According to Hollinger, they keep by far the league's top pace. The Sixers also possess almost no shooting capabilities whatsoever, so they weren't really able to exploit the Thunder as much as they wanted offensively.
Atlanta, on the other hand, changed their strategy with their flexible roster. The loss of Horford and Teague left them with only two shot creators in Lou Williams and Paul Milsap. To remedy this, they had to move the ball more and faster. This doesn't mean that they kept the pace fast, as Philadelphia did. Rather, they really committed to their offensive sets, rarely settling for a bad shot or giving up a defensive rebound. This got them good opportunities for position bigs like Gustavo Ayon and Mike Scott, and also generated opportunities for shooters like Kyle Korver.
The Heat Loom
Of course, looming over all of this is an impending matchup that we have with the Miami Heat. The Heat are well-known for exploiting the Thunder's trapping, using elite level shot creators and excellent floor spacing. They aren't exactly the same beast at the Hawks or 76ers were, but they can achieve the same defense-sucking effect that makes the Thunder look really bad. If you need any evidence of that, check out this extremely painful highlight reel of Game 5 last year. So many open shots....
The crazy thing about the Heat is that, despite their ability to exploit that flaw in the Thunder's defense, they possess the very same flaw in their own defense. Miami loves to hyper-aggressively trap, ranking top in the league at turnovers forced per game. This leads to them faring extremely poorly against teams with good ball movement and a fast pace.
Need an example? Look no further than the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. As I said before, according to Hollinger, the 76ers are the team with the best Pace Factor. Similarly, they also rank tops in team assists per game, averaging 26.5. The Lakers are basically in the same boat, averaging the league's third best pace factor and the league's second most assist per game.
Both teams have given Miami significant trouble. The 76ers managed to surprise the Heat with an early season blowout win. Philly didn't put up much of a fight in their second encounter with Miami, but Miami is oodles better talent-wise, so that's to be expected. The Lakers, on the other hand, gave the Heat two very close battles on Christmas Day and January 23rd.
And don't forget about the Hawks. They're not as fast or assist-heavy overall as the Sixers or Lakers, but their Horford-less roster managed a convincing win against the Heat last Monday.
What can the Thunder do to win?
What I'd like to stress here is that the Thunder face a significant disadvantage on both ends of the floor.
Defensively, they have a huge problem because their typical strategy will usually lead them to ruin. The Thunder can't focus on protecting the rim, trapping for turnovers, and switching defenders all the time. But there's no real "solution" to guarding the Miami Heat. Your best hope is to try to take advantage of their turnovers, win the battle of possession, and focus on your offense.
And offensively, the Heat have a critical flaw. They perform poorly against run and gun teams with deliberate offensive sets that emphasize ball movement and good shots. The Thunder aren't that team necessarily, but they can do things to guide their team in that direction.
For now, the good news is that Russell Westbrook is out. Now, I'm not trying to be a Westbrook hater, but he's generally struggled against the Heat's defense. Westbrook is a power player that relies on a combination of his natural strength and ability to hit tough shots early in the clock. He loves to fire up the ball after a simple play, and does a great deal to accelerate the pace of the offense.
Reggie Jackson, on the other hand, slows down the offense. He's much more deliberate, and much more likely to run a complex play. Obviously, he's not as effective of a scorer and relying on the Thunder's other players to score can be a fools game, but Jackson has never really gotten a fair shake against the Heat. He doesn't have an overwhelmingly good opposing point guard to stop his scoring and LeBron will be busy with KD, so he has a huge opportunity to contribute as an X-Factor. And I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's partially good that Fisher is playing point guard as well, because he's extremely unlikely to pull up for a quick shot.
The stat's support Jackson and Fisher's pass-heavy offense really helping out the team. In the victories against the Hawks and Sixers, the Thunder totaled 23 assists. In the Thunder's 6 consecutive losses to the Heat, they've averaged 14.5 assists a game. That's a significant difference, made even more significant by the fact that the Thunder had 22 assists in their game 1 victory.
Getting back to Reggie Jackson, the key for him is getting more deliberate about pushing the break. I know I just got done talking about how he slows down the offense, and that's good when the Thunder get into half-court sets. But when the Thunder get into transition, they really need to capitalize in order to compete. I've seen Jackson accidentally destroy a fast break during nearly every game, opting to set up the offense. Westbrook occasionally destroys fast breaks as well, but he immediately calls for a quick play and shoots. Jackson's backup plan work better against the Heat, but he can't consistently rely on Plan B.
Another thing the Thunder need to do offensively is hit the three. OKC has seen a huge dip in their overall three point percentage this season, and their performance from game to game has been nothing short of erratic. There's no easy fix to this problem, other than getting deeper into offensive sets, moving the ball more, and hoping Jeremy Lamb and Derek Fisher are having a good day. Nevertheless, the Thunder will need to avoid bombing this category if they want to capture victory tonight.
All in all, if the Thunder can appropriately adjust their offensive game, this matchup turns into a stalemate. It's the Thunder's talent against the Heat's talent. With Dwayne Wade's knee problems and Kevin Durant's domination, I'd argue that both teams are at a similar level. But if they don't, the only real advantage that the Thunder possess is their ability to get to the line. They'll likely turn the ball over too much, force themselves into bad shots, and watch as the Heat's shooters destroy the Thunder on every offensive possession.
Also, golf is dumb.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 100, Miami Heat 99.
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