The Western Conference has unfolded in a predictable way, with the young Thunder, carrying over nearly their entire roster from last season, distancing themselves from a pack of teams either dealing with age, injuries, controversy, protective masks (have you heard?) or general craziness.
Rivals are searching for cracks in Oklahoma City’s 29-8 record, and so the league perked up a bit on Saturday, when the Thunder finally faltered down the stretch in a close loss to Atlanta. Before that game, the Thunder had been a league-best 13-3 in games in which the scoring margin fell to three or fewer points (in either direction) during the final three minutes, per NBA.com‘s detailed clutch numbers.
They had been even better — 10-2 — in games in which the margin had dwindled to a single point during the final three minutes. Kevin Durant has emerged as the league’s most feared closer, and with occasional scoring help from Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder have consistently bailed themselves out of close games in the last couple of minutes. Were they lucky? Was their plus-5.9-per-game scoring margin — far below those of the Heat, Bulls and Sixers and not much higher than the Trail Blazers’ or Spurs’ — an indication that they weren’t as good as their record?
The focus on Durant’s crunch-time scoring — and the crunch-time bricks he and Westbrook tossed up against Atlanta — missed the more important element of the Thunder’s crunch-time success so far: Their defense, mediocre overall, had been perhaps the best in the league near the end of close games.
How good? In the last five minutes of games with a scoring margin of five or fewer points in either direction, teams before Saturday had shot just 30 percent (45-of-150) against Oklahoma City and scored the equivalent of just 85.8 points per 100 possessions. Those numbers ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among all defenses in those situations, per NBA.com.
Cut the time to three minutes and the margin to three points, and the numbers stay about the same: 27.6 percent shooting allowed (No. 1 in the league) and 79.1 points allowed per 100 possessions (No. 2). Focus on only the final two minutes of games with a margin of plus- or minus-3 or fewer points, and Thunder opponents had shot a ridiculous 9-of-40 (22.5 percent) going into the Atlanta game.
I’ll stop there, because regardless of how you monkey around with the time and scoring constraints, the Thunder will come out as one of the league’s two or three best crunch-time defenses.
This is shocking stuff from a defense that ranks just 13th overall in points allowed per possession and near the bottom of the league (22nd) in defensive rebounding. It also raises obvious sample size questions, since we’re dealing with minutes totals ranging from the teens to nearly 100, depending on the data you’re looking at.
And the sample size issue brings us to the question at the heart of this: Have the Thunder just been lucky, with teams bricking an unusual number of shots — a trend that will surely reverse itself? Or do they really have another gear on defense?
Luck has almost certainly been a contributor — it always is when we talk about a few makes or misses or booted balls in money time. Dig deeper into the numbers and the video, and you notice a couple of interesting things:
• Teams are taking (and missing) a lot of threes against the Thunder in crunch time. Only five teams have “allowed” more three-point tries per minute in crunch time (the last five minutes of close games) than Oklahoma City, whereas opponents overall have jacked an average number of threes against the Thunder.
• Teams are turning the ball over a ton against Oklahoma City in crunch time. Going into the Atlanta loss, the Thunder’s crunch-time defense had produced one of the 10 highest turnover rates in the league in almost every crunch-time minutes/scoring margin situation. They ranked among the top five or even the top three in several such situations.
This is notable because the Thunder generally do not force turnovers; they rank just 26th in defensive turnover rate (tied with the Clippers) for the season.
Again, is this random luck, or can the Thunder consciously morph from an otherwise non-threatening defensive team into the 2008 Celtics with the game on the line? The answer to this question will have a lot to do with who wins the 2012 NBA title.
The film suggests it might be (not surprisingly) a little bit of both. It appears the Thunder’s perimeter players, prone to some bad habits in the run of play, become more attentive down the stretch. Russell Westbrook, thought of upon his drafting in 2008 as the Thunder’s future perimeter stopper, suffers from occasionally poor footwork and a mild addiction to gambling himself out of position, opening driving lanes for opposing point guards. James Harden can commit some of the same sins, though not as often or as badly as Westbrook.
But they appear to exercise a bit more caution and smarts at the end of close games. And the Thunder big men, especially Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, often play with a higher aggression level in pursuing ball-handlers far from the hoop on pick-and-roll plays. They’ll sometimes even play something like a strong-side zone, leaving their man entirely in order to clog up driving lanes on the strong side of the floor. That strategy carries risk, since two Thunder defenders are occupied with one opposing guard 20 feet from the rim, and one of their bigs has moved himself out of ideal rebounding position. But it can also lead to turnovers, crisis jumpers and guards picking up their dribble instead of pursuing an offensive set to its completion.
Connected with this aggression on the ball: Oklahoma City is confident its wing defenders are athletic and long enough to rotate quickly to any crisis near the rim and bother shooters big and small. Westbrook’s out-of-nowhere near-block on Nicolas Batum’s apparently wide-open layup at the buzzer of regulation last month in Portland is this season’s most famous example, but as we saw in the Thunder’s close win over Philadelphia last week, Oklahoma City’s wings will almost always leave so-so three-point shooters to help elsewhere on key possessions. It’s a smart risk/reward trade-off teams with better shooters might be able to exploit.
Again, we’re talking about a very small sample size, and the numbers will almost certainly trend at least a bit toward the league average. Perhaps the Thunder really do have a little paper tiger in them. Or perhaps they are primed to emerge as a better defensive team than they’ve shown so far.
Eight Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Timberwolves’ front-line synergy
It’s delightful watching Rick Adelman and the Wolves find new ways to take advantage of the Kevin Love/Nikola Pekovic pairing. The Wolves were already using creative misdirection to get Love touches on the block before Pekovic’s emergence. Pairing Love’s inside/outside game with Pekovic’s post brutality brings more options, including a Memphis-style pick-and-roll action in which Love will set a high screen for a Minny point guard and roll down one side of the lane. As Love begins his cut to the hoop and Ricky Rubio dribbles, Pekovic will suddenly slide into post position on the side of the lane opposite Love, making it difficult for Pekovic’s defender to help on Love’s cut.
2. Announcers calling players by their first names
I’ve long accepted that local announcing crews, with a few pleasant exceptions, bring home-team bias, ranging from subtle favoritism to Tommy Heinsohn/Sean Elliott lunacy. I’ve learned to get past the puff pieces, selective referee-bashing and general trumping up of every mildly successful piece of basketball the home team pulls off. But for some reason, the buddy-buddy familiarity of using first names continues to eat at me. It’s a league-wide thing, but I frowned even more than usual a couple of weeks back when George Blaha, the Detroit play-by-play guy and one of my favorites on NBA League Pass, began referring to Walker Russell, Detroit’s D-League call-up point guard, as “Walker D.”
3. Kenyon Martin air balls
I’m not even sure if this is a like or dislike, but Kenyon Martin air balls are the most violent type of air balls.
4. Jrue Holiday, defaulting to the pull-up
Impatience with young point guards is usually a bit unfair, but Holiday’s tendency to pull up quickly on pick-and-rolls after the turning the corner is symbolic of the good and bad in Philadelphia’s increasingly shaky offense. The good: Holiday is not a bad mid-range shooter, the looks are open and shooting instead of driving eliminates the possibility of turnovers. The bad: Philly is over reliant on two-point jumpers. It ranks near the bottom of the league in free throws, three-point tries and shots from the restricted area, and that kind of low-risk offense is prone to long droughts. Holiday is averaging just 1.9 free throws per 40 minutes, 45th among point 63 point guards who have played even minimal rotation-level minutes this season, per Hoopdata.
5. Portland’s red alternate road jerseys
One of the sweetest uniforms in the league, and so much better than Portland’s standard black jerseys, even though some of the appeal comes from their relative rarity.
6. Marcin Gortat, tricking his way into deep post position
You’ll see almost every team run a set like this a dozen times per game: A point guard handles the ball up high, the two big men set up at the elbows, and the two wings station themselves in opposite corners. The point guard will enter the ball to one of the bigs at the elbow, cut into the teeth of the defense and set in motion a series of cuts and screens.
Phoenix catches teams off guard by entering the ball to a power forward (Channing Frye or Markieff Morris) at one elbow and having Gortat jog down from the other elbow as if he’s going to set a ho-hum screen for one of the wings in the corner — a standard action teams see every game. But just as Gortat steps out of the paint, the Phoenix point guard will dart right down the middle of the lane and set a surprise screen on Gortat’s man, freeing a suddenly aggressive Gortat to veer across the lane, slide into deep post position with his man trailing behind and receive a quick entry pass from the power forward. Good stuff.
7. John Wall, still not getting much from picks
It was a problem last season, and it remains a problem today: John Wall and his big-man teammates just can’t seem to run his man into screens on high pick-and-rolls. I’m not sure whether most of the blame should fall on Wall or Washington’s big men, but Wall’s defender is often able to slide between him and the screener, sticking with Wall and almost negating the pick. Wall is fast enough to get some space anyway, but this is a recurring issue that makes it much more difficult for Washington’s offense to generate good looks.
8. Rodney Stuckey, bringing out his inner bully
There is a meanness and physicality to Stuckey’s game, and working as a hybrid guard this season alongside Brandon Knight instead of a point man has unleashed Stuckey’s efficient brand of cruelty. Stuckey comes alive when he can post up overmatched guards and attack the rim in delayed transition, or when Knight kicks the ball to him on the perimeter as a spot-up outlet on pick-and-roll plays. Stuckey has attempted at least eight free throws in nine of Detroit’s last 10 games, and he’s averaging 19.3 points per game over that stretch. Few will notice, but Stuckey is living up to his three-year, $25-million contract.