The Oklahoma City Thunder looked mostly helpless on Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. They looked that way for all of the reasons that generally bad basketball teams look helpless against generally good basketball teams. Most notably, lack of any real defense at the rim.
Now, that's a bit unfair, because the Thunder are far from a bad team, even without Serge Ibaka, and they are playing the best team in basketball – record-wise – in the San Antonio Spurs. Still, the Spurs aren't THAT good, and the Thunder definitely aren't THAT bad, it just looked that way for long stretches of Game 1.
If you tuned in to any random point of that game, you would have found yourself saying things like, "That was an easy shot," and "where's the defense?" on more than one occasion. It's already been dissected just about everywhere today, and the numbers are all but imprinted into Thunder fans' brains at this point: 66. It looks evil, and given the fact that the Thunder had been allowing just 42 points in the paint during the postseason, those 66 points in the paint by the Spurs were downright horrifying. Simply put, the Thunder's lack of defense was evident from the opening tip until the final buzzer... just about.
There was a brief stretch in the third quarter, however, when the Thunder actually played fairly terrific basketball. They played so well in fact that, after a 3-pointer on the Spurs' opening possession, OKC went on a 19-7 run to take their only serious lead of the game (that didn't come in the game's opening moments).
Kevin Durant acknowledged that stretch in practice today, as reported by CBS Sports' Royce Young:
Kevin Durant today at practice: "We played eight minutes of good basketball [in Game 1]."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 20, 2014
It's more than likely the only bit of film the Thunder players actually enjoyed watching on the off day, and there are moments from that stretch that should provide a tiny glimmer of hope for the Thunder to try and salvage this series.
For the third quarter as a whole, the Thunder held the Spurs to just 8-for-22 shooting (36.4 percent) and forced three of their just eight turnovers for the game. It wasn't smothering, but it at least resembled the defensive effort that made them such a threat all season long.
Even without Serge Ibaka patrolling the paint - which, should the Thunder lose this series, will be more appreciated than ever next season - the Thunder used a solid defensive scheme, along with sheer hustle, to make the Spurs work on offense, at least for eight minutes.
Play 1: Even the simple fact that, in the first play, the Spurs are taking a shot late in the shot clock is a positive sign for the Thunder. The Spurs move the ball quickly and shoot early and often, so slowing down the possession, even just for a stretch, makes executing their offense that much more difficult.
The on-ball defender (Sefolosha) employs the same tactic that worked so well against the Clippers in the previous series: chasing the dribbler over the screen. That forces Parker into the help defender, which Perkins relishes in this instance and doesn't allow Parker to get a path to the rim - something he, admittedly, was able to do at plenty of other points in the game. Notice how the play itself doesn't really begin until about seven seconds left in the shot clock, which comes as the result of hustling back on defense and denying an easy transition drive.
When Duncan finally receives the pass in the high post, he is forced to rush the shot, which Westbrook is able to contest on a rotation because he doesn't need to worry about the extra pass.
You could pin that on lazy execution by the Spurs, allowing the shot clock to run that far down, but credit should go to OKC as well for staying on their man and not allowing easy passes. And for recognizing the shot clock running down and rotating accordingly.
Play 2: Once again, the Spurs offense is forced to execute in the halfcourt because of an out of bounds set. The play is drawn up for Duncan to operate out of the post, but when the off-ball movement doesn't result in any open cutters – a result of good off-ball defense – Duncan is forced to go one-on-one with Perkins. Perkins played just 23 minutes, but his one-on-one defense with Duncan was terrific. Duncan largely got his points early when matched up with Collison, but when the Thunder defense was able to set and put Perkins on Duncan and Collison on Splitter, it gave the Thunder the luxury of not having to help off in the post.
The result is more stifling off-ball defense and Duncan being forced to make a move. To his credit, it works, but the offense is so jumbled at that point that Collison is able to rotate off his man easily and provide the help. That results in an airball from Duncan, and a rare stop for the Thunder to answer with points on the other end.
Play 1: The defense again relies on going over screens and rotating to help under the rim. That latter action is especially welcome, given how rarely the Thunder had a defender at the rim for so many possessions in this game. It forces a tough pass inside, which forces a difficult Duncan shot, and even when Duncan gathers an offensive rebound – another problem OKC will need to shore up – the help defenders are there to knock the ball away.
Now, a lot of this works out because of gambles that pay off. The paint is packed with Thunder defenders, meaning Duncan could have swung the ball to the perimeter for an easy 3-pointer (see Kawhi Leonard on the wing), but the sheer hustle likely resulted in Duncan feeling pressured and forcing the shot.
Play 2: This isn't necessarily great defense, but the fact that no one gives up on the play is still a positive sign. The game was closer than it had been in a long time, and the Thunder, sensing the desperate situation, refuse to give anything easy. Ginobili's first floater is a shot he makes fairly often, and the Thunder once again overpack the paint, which puts them out of position for the rebound and gives Ginobili a second chance, which he gives to Leonard.
The Spurs are great at turning offensive rebounds into open shots over an out-of-position defense, but Collison recognizes the play developing and manages to give a respectable closeout. Duncan once again gets his hands on the rebound – again, an issue the Thunder will have to correct – but Westbrook uses that athleticism and ability to sniff out loose balls to charge and gather it before Duncan can.
It's a play that could have resulted in easy points for the Spurs, but the Thunder's hustle denied it, and sometimes getting stops can be as simple as that. Sure, the better team will always win, but running hard and not giving up on a play makes putting points on the board that much more difficult.
Play 3: Aggressive switching, strong on-ball defense, it results in a difficult entry pass that Splitter can't handle. Then Collison does what he does and gets dirty to save it and ensure a change of possession.
Again, basic fundamental defense, but when every guy executes his part, you often get opportunities like this, and adding that hustle at the end can turn things around in a hurry.
Play 1: Probably could have gone in the first video because Collison's switch is textbook and excellent, and most certainly bothered Parker's shot. But it's also noteworthy because of Perk's crash of the board. Those first few examples have quite a few offensive rebounds for the Spurs, but it's plays like this, where Perk closes out strong and rips down the board, that need to be the model.
It's a lot easier said than done, but that intensity can prevent second-chance rebounds just about every time. Westbrook may be the best on the team at doing it, and Durant has his moments too – so did Serge, :,( – where they barrel in and rip down a rebound that could have gone the other way. It's just another example of using that "toughness" that Brooks mentioned in the huddle (see below).
Play 2: Perkins' one-on-one post defense has the potential to alter this series in itself. You see how much it helps the defense when he can be on an island with Duncan, and Duncan is still forced into a tough jumper. Contrast that to the dozens of other examples of Spurs' bigs just going right through smaller Thunder defenders, and you really appreciate Perkins' ability to handle it on his own. It also lets the rest of the defense stay true to their matchup, something else that has its effect on the offensive end when less energy is required from defensive possessions like this.
It was only eight minutes, and the amount energy expended during the stretch clearly took its toll on the guys that helped execute it, but the principles remain the same. Scott Brooks took the chance going small against the Spurs, thinking it could neutralize the Thunder's lack of a reliable defensive big man. It's hard to argue with the reasoning, but seeing how easily the Spurs picked it apart, a different approach is pretty much essential.
This eight-minute stretch featured a more traditional Thunder lineup that was able to execute the Thunder defense more effectively, and that's really what leads to Thunder basketball at large. I referenced the Scott Brooks' quote from the huddle in my postgame recap, but it bears repeating here:
"Keep up the toughness on defense, use your speed and athleticism on offense."
That's the balance the Thunder will need. They are faster and more athletic than the Spurs, and with the right lineup, they can be stronger, too. But it takes an effort of the entire team to use that toughness to their advantage. Rotations are key, but more than anything, staying strong on their man can change everything. That's when you get bad entry passes, or force tough looks from a guy that just can't go through you.
It won't be easy, because a lot of these plays have easy corrections that the Spurs can make as well, like simply making one extra pass to take advantage of the gambling defender.
In the end, it was just an eight-minute stretch, and replicating it for 48 may be impossible. But maintaining that tough attitude, at least for most of the game, could put the Thunder within striking distance down the stretch. And in a close game, they have the speed and athleticism to put points on the board.
It was just an eight-minute stretch, but it may be the Thunder's blueprint to win the series.