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Thunder Film Room: breaking down Thunder defensive adjustments vs Spurs in game 2

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How did the Thunder shock the Spurs in game 2? In a word, defense.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Since this is my first "official" article here at WTLC, let me briefly introduce myself. I am a born and bred Sooner who became an OKC Thunder fan about 2 years after they relocated to Oklahoma City. My first full game that I watched was when KD hit the game winner against the Mavs back in 2011, and I was immediately hooked. I've since become a sort of basketball junky, and especially enjoy breaking down film (particularly when the defensive side of things is involved). I was previously known here as "LastChance," but have updated my profile to reflect my name going forward. I hope that I can provide something interesting, and thanks for reading!

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The beginning of the novel " Tale of Two Cities" is one of the most recognizable and iconic literary introductions of all time. What makes it so memorable and unique is the seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition that is presented: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A comparison of two elements that seem mutually exclusive is presented as if the things coexist. How could the best of times also be the worst of times?

And so we have reached our quandary. We have found our own set of seemingly paradoxical realities. And yes, if you haven't guessed by now, I mean the Oklahoma City Thunder defense over the past two games. If ever there were two cases that could not coexist, these are such cases. But, in the event someone has missed this difference, let me blow your mind with some comparisons.

In game 1, in the first quarter, San Antonio scored 43 points on 82-75-80 shooting splits. No, that isn't a typo, and no, the universe did not explode. But clearly, the defense that the Thunder played (or didn't play, as it were) was not effective. And while the numbers look marginally better for the entirety of the game (124 points on 61-60-72 splits), even then the defense was mind-bogglingly bad.

Compare (or perhaps contrast) this to game 2. In quarter 1 of game 2, San Antonio scored 21 points on 39-25-0 splits. They finished with 97 points on 43-26-85 splits. Not just less efficient, but so much so that it is seemingly impossible, given the way game 1 unfolded.

But perhaps numbers don't work for you. Maybe the previous two paragraphs could be Greek and be equally as clear. Then perhaps these shot charts will make it apparent.

This is the chart from game 1. For those of you who may be new to these, when examining defense, green is bad, and red is good. And there is a whole lot of bad going on here.

And yet:

Game 2 looks much different. There are a few spots that they shot well from (LaMarcus Aldridge killed it from that left baseline), but overall, this is an acceptable shot chart (and excellent, relative to the first one).

So we have outline the differences in the results. But the ultimate question is "What changed?" for which I will try to provide an answer. Remember, of course, that basketball is a game of variance; sometimes the shots just go in. However, such a radical improvement cannot be accounted for by variance. The goal of this article is to explain exactly what was the root cause for the improvement. And so we begin.

A Tale of Two Tapes

If you don't recall, or perhaps did not read, the article I wrote earlier this season examining the defense, I like to break it down into the various components that must work together in order to succeed. In that article, I mentioned four things: scheme, lineups, fundamentals, and effort. I'd like to look at those four items from a different angle, by highlighting the changes that occurred in each. I will be mostly sticking to the first quarters of each game in finding examples, for the sake of time. However, when I see fit, I will pull moments from other quarters in the game if they appear to give a better example of what I need to illustrate.

Game 1

This is the first play of game 1. Not exactly how you want to start off a series. The scrum of screens that happens right around the FT line automatically gets the Thunder defenders behind the play both physically and mentally. Something of note here is that Serge Ibaka is responsible for help defense, and he never even gets turned around. Durant doesn't really have chance to stay in front because of the subtle push LaMarcus Aldridge gives him in the back (this happens a lot against San Antonio, but it isn't ever called).

40 seconds later, our pick and pop problem shows it's ugly face for the first time. This is schematic, as I don't think I've ever seen Adams sit this far back. Clearly the game plan was to deny at the rim first, and if they could hit some mid-range 2's, so be it. While this is usually an acceptable concept, against a great mid-range shooter like Aldridge, it probably wasn't the best choice.

This is a clear case of the effort level simply not being up to par, and also a case of personnel mismanagement. Durant gets screened far too easily, and because Serge is hanging back (as part of the scheme), he can't really contest Kawhi. The fact that Durant never even makes it back inside the arc shows that he simply wasn't interested in recovering. In reality, though, having Andre Roberson on Kawhi Leonard made so much more sense, I put fault for this equally on Donovan.

This play highlights a personnel problem. Roberson was guarding Danny Green, and does a fine job disrupting the play. He has been disruptive all season, but especially so this post-season. However, Green isn't going to break down a defense. Once the ball goes to Tony Parker, Roberson cannot be disruptive anymore, as he has to sit in the corner. The result is that the offense can operate smoothly.

I posted this play in the comments as an indication of how basic the Spurs offense was most of game 1. They are able to break down the Thunder defense with 3 guys stationary, and with Aldridge walking. Basically, this means that 33-year-old Tony Parker broke down the entire defense. Roberson tries to help over on Aldridge, as he was the hot shooter and was wide open. But the Spurs are simply too smart and experienced for the Thunder to recover from these break downs. Again, this is schematic (bigs hanging back) and effort based (Russ is way too slow around the screen).

This play has some encouraging and discouraging elements. Because this is a transition play, Roberson picks up Kawhi, Russ is on Green, and Durant is on Parker. This match-up works wonders, as Parker is going to struggle to create against KD's length, and Roberson can stifle Kawhi. The result is that Aldridge has to create the offense. Now, he does get to a spot where he could have taken a decent shot. He instead tries to draw a foul, and misses the shot. But this demonstrates the key to beating the Spurs: force other guys to initiate the offense.

The last area I thought was worth mentioning in game 1 was transition defense. This all goes back to effort and fundamentals. Russ missed a shot from the top of the key, and rather than worry about defense, decides to pose for pictures. Meanwhile, Kawhi has already leaked out. Despite Kawhi being Singler's man, because he matched up on Russ on the other end, he becomes Russ' responsibility in transition. Despite this, and despite Singler being farther away than Russ, Kyle still beats Russ down court to try and contest the dunk. This is embarrassingly bad effort and attention.

Game 2

Prior to the beginning of game 2, some reports were released that Donovan was considering a change in the starting lineup. The assumption was that Roberson wasn't going to be starting anymore, much to my personal annoyance. I truly believe that Roberson can impact the game on the defensive end like very few other guards in this league, and if you don't believe that, read this thing I wrote earlier this season. So after the defensive debacle in game 1, I truly thought it would be sending a bad message to make that adjustment.

Instead, Donovan made a much, much better adjustment: he changed the matchups. Roberson would defend Kawhi while KD defended Green. This had two benefits: the Spurs attack would operate less freely, and Durant would impact the game more offensively with the saved energy. And surprise, surprise, it worked. I know, the idea that matching up to your opponent improves your chance of winning is quite frankly...

...But indeed it does help. So let's get to the tape.

The first result of the match-up change is shown above. Russ puts more effort into fighting around a screen, Roberson is sitting on the passing lane to Kawhi, and Danny Green is forced to try initiating offense. He gets caught in the lane, and has no choice but to make a risky pass to Aldridge. The result was a turnover (and the most beautiful fast break of all time).

Here is another early steal that demonstrates the difference in effort and matchups. Roberson is put on the ball handler, and rather than jog back to establish half-court defense, he presses. Mills dribbles off his own foot while attempting a behind the back escape dribble, and Roberson is off to the races. To Manu's credit, no points come out of this possession, but the intensity on the defensive end shows up.

This is fantastic anticipation by Westbrook that shows a level of focus missing in the first game. He knows his man isn't a real threat, and he can sit inside. San Antonio wants that matchup in the lane, and Russ is able to intercept the pass. By the way, these fast breaks resulted in some easy offense, so selling out your defense in hopes of scoring with them is counter-productive.

This may have been the most beautiful defensive possession of the game from start to finish. Roberson forces the floor to switch, Dion Waiters cuts off the drive, Roberson forces Manu to the corner where Kanter helps trap, KD forces Green out, Dion again stops Mills with help from KD, Mills throws a risky pass to Green, Roberson and Kanter again pair up to stop Manu, and then Roberson strips the pass clean.

If the Thunder had played defense like this all season, they would be in the 65 to 70 win range without a doubt. All 5 guys work together beautifully with great effort. The ball never gets inside of 15 feet, no player ever has a clean look at the basket, and the shot clock makes it all the way to 4 seconds before the resulting turnover.

San Antonio makes a crucial mistake in this possession: they attack a pick-and-roll with Adams and Roberson defending. Even with two great offensive players, this play was doomed from that moment. Adams shows aggressively enough to slow Kawhi, and Roberson gets his arms in the passing lane, effectively removing Aldridge from the play. This is the exact play that ate OKC alive in game 1 (three guys stationary, simply pick and pop), but it is absolutely smothered here. Personnel matters.

I added this play because of an underrated part of the defensive change. In game 1, our interior defense was pretty bad. Here, we handle the point of attack pretty well, but the path down the lane is still there for Duncan. Rather than get a layup, however, Serge comes over and blocks the shot. Note the time in the game: less than 3 minutes have been played.

This play demonstrates why that block is so crucial. Just seconds later, San Antonio gets a fast break opportunity. Green sees Serge coming up behind, and is too busy watching him to focus on the simple layup. The result of this play should have been OKC ball (the refs ruled it off Roberson, but it's actually slapped out of his hands), all because of the fear factor of Ibaka.

If you think back to the 2014 series, when Serge came back the defense completely changed. Even when he isn't blocking shots, he has always been able to alter shots. Because we saw aggressive Serge early, many of the Spurs' decisions were altered because of the shadow that Serge was casting .

The last thing I want to show is what happens when you match up correctly. When the other guys have to initiate the offense, the result isn't nearly as efficient as when Kawhi and Parker initiate. Those guys drive the offense, and if we have to give up Green midrange shots to ensure those guys are handled, then so be it. That is a recipe for winning defense against San Antonio.

So what changed?

  • Scheme: In game 1, our pick-and-anything coverage involved the bigs hanging back an unusually large amount. This meant that they were having to recover 10-15 feet to contest the shot, and that simply wasn't possible. In game 2, they pressed up much closer to the action, which inhibited the drive, and generally stopped the action. While this does theoretically leave you open to passes inside, San Antonio doesn't have an athletic front court, and so this could generally be avoided with help defense.
  • Effort: The effort and intensity were completely missing in game 1. The early run by San Antonio seemed to break the will of the Thunder defenders. In game 2, we were the bullies. San Antonio was continually forced off of their spots and the energy proved to be disruptive. After the game, Steven Adams put it succinctly:
  • Fundamentals: Something I overlooked in my analysis was the fouling of 3-point shooters. It happened 4 times in the first half of game 1. This is a sign of lack of focus on the fundamentals (like staying down on pump fakes and never fouling a shooter). While this did happen in game 2, the circumstances were a little bit different. Also, game 1 had many silly fast breaks given up, and that was remedied in game 2.
  • Personnel: This, to me, was the biggest thing, and I know that others agree with me. Matching up to their guys made a world of difference in how easily they could run their sets. By essentially eliminating either Parker or Kawhi, you make their offense initiation much more 1-dimensional, and force other guys to make plays. This is winning basketball. Jim Collins, in his article Good to Great, says that the first step is getting the right people on the bus (this is the GM's job, ie., roster construction and coaching staff assembly). But once there, if you don't have the people in the right seat, you are no better off. In game 1, the players were in the wrong seats. This was remedied in game 2.

One last thing I'd like to do is give shout-outs to Dion and Enes Kanter. Because I was mainly looking at first quarters, these guys didn't get much love. But both of them had great defensive games in game 2. Kanter had a moment or two where his feet got bogged down, but he also had some blocks and was generally in very good position. Dion played some really good defense on Kawhi late in the game, including disrupting his dribble several times. And since both of them were involved in what I called the prettiest defensive possession, I thought it fair that I don't leave them out.

So there you have it. In true Dickens-esque fashion of excessive wordage, I have tried to explain the stark juxtaposition created by the Thunder defense. Now, as always in the playoffs, the only questions is if they can maintain the level of defensive play that won game 2.