The Thunder had a plan for defending the Spurs’ deadly pick-and-roll attack, and the plan has failed miserably. That leaves two options:
1. Be better at the plan.
2. Change the plan.
There is a middle ground in which Thunder coach Scott Brooks could keep the same basic plan but change the personnel involved — more of Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, less of Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. (A word on Perkins: The Thunder are battling against the league’s best offense, a fight in which every possession is precious. Perkins is a traveling violation waiting to happen, and he has as many turnovers in the playoffs (16) as field goals. The Thunder must stop wasting possessions in a misguided attempt to “get the big man involved,” as if if Perkins were Bill Cartwright on the Jordan-era Bulls. And a word on Fisher: San Antonio has continued to play off of Fisher regardless of whether he is “hot” or “cold” from outside, a strategy that speaks volumes to Popovich’s understanding of long-term odds and the importance of process over results. A lesser coach would have panicked after Fisher’s unsustainable Game 1 outburst).
The Thunder’s basic pick-and-roll strategy has played out as expected based on their regular-season matchups with San Antonio. It looks like this:
The Thunder are having Russell Westbrook force Parker left and chase him over the initial pick, while the man guarding the screener (Perkins here) slides to the left side in order to cut Parker off. Notice that James Harden (guarding Danny Green in the corner nearest Parker’s dribbling path) is closer to his man than the Thunder players on the weak side. If the ball gets into the paint, the Thunder are helping off the shooters furthest from Parker, forcing the Spurs to throw longer-distance passes and generally cover more ground. Leaving the shooter in the near corner is allowed only in the worst kind of crises.
Here’s another look, this one on a Manu Ginobili pick-and-roll:
This is standard NBA stuff; it just hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked mostly because the Spurs are brilliant, but also because brilliance requires a level of defensive discipline — borderline perfection, really — that has never been in the arsenal of this Thunder team. The breakdowns are happening both at the point of attack and in the scrambling rotations that follow penetration into the teeth of their defense. Take this gorgeous play from the middle of the second quarter:
The first thing to notice is that Perkins just doesn’t have the speed or footwork to challenge Parker this far from the basket, keep his balance and prevent Parker from hitting Duncan on the roll. This pass is too easy, and it is the first step towards an all but certain basket:
Before we eviscerate Perkins here, let’s remember that the Thunder signed him to battle Andrew Bynum five feet from the hoop, not to chase small Frenchmen 30 feet from the basket. They also traded for Perkins after an earlier aborted trade for Tyson Chandler, who has the ideal combination of footwork, proper stance, balance and quickness that the Thunder could use here. (Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett and a few others have it, too.) Let’s also note how fantastic Duncan is at timing his rolls to the basket — and how precise Parker and Ginobili are at threading passes through available lanes. Duncan isn’t just barreling down the middle without regard for the location of the ball or the passer; he’s watching, waiting and timing his steps so that he’s in the perfect place when Parker pulls up. Duncan is terrific at this.
Duncan is also a highly-skilled passer on the move, as is Tiago Splitter, and when Duncan makes the initial pass here to Stephen Jackson, look how three Thunder defenders all run in the same general direction:
Durant and Ibaka are sprinting at Jackson, and Durant, fast emerging as the Thunder’s best all-around defender, is about to make a smart read and veer up toward Matt Bonner off the screen. The problem is that Perkins has already started off in that direction, leaving poor James Harden alone to deal with both Duncan and Jackson’s dribble-drive. That in turn leaves Parker unattended, and the results are seemingly inevitable.
The easy solution would be for Perkins to sag back, but then Parker will get clean mid-range looks like this:
And that’s when things go generally well — when there is no obvious mistake at the top of the defense. Those have happened, too. Westbrook has taken the occasional ill-advised angle chasing Parker around screens away from the ball, and Ginobili has exploited Harden’s shakier tendencies in very subtle ways. When Harden spun off the back of a screener in the first quarter instead of chasing Ginobili over the pick, Ginobili seized on the wider-than-usual driving lane to get all the way to the rim. And late in the third quarter, Ginobili ingeniously baited Harden into lunging away from him in order to needlessly help on a Matt Bonner dribble drive, knowing Bonner would kick the ball back with Ginobili in prime position to blow by a wrong-footed Harden.
But even when the Thunder execute their strategy as soundly as their personnel allows, the Spurs are carving up Oklahoma City. There might not be anything to do; the Spurs, after all, have carved up the entire league for the last 50 games or so. But the Thunder have to try something or risk further exploitation and general paralysis on the defensive end. Players are hesitate to help each other, fearful of leaving a San Antonio shooter open or exposing a teammate in some way.
Brooks did try some interesting tactics in the fourth quarter that could have some staying power. He went small again after mostly abandoning such units in the first half, but this time, he went with Ibaka as the lone true big man on the floor, confident that Ibaka’s quickness would allow him to contain Parker and challenge mid-range jumpers. Going small also makes the Thunder harder to defend, since it removes one of Oklahoma City’s non-threatening big men — players the Spurs are mostly ignoring (along with Sefolosha and Fisher) to contain Westbrook, Harden and Durant in the paint.
Ibaka deflected one Parker mid-range shot and looked spry shifting back and forth from Parker to Duncan as the ball moved around. Still: Subtle footwork and textbook positioning are not Ibaka’s strong suits, and playing him in space like this will concede some passing lanes to Duncan and some open pick-and-pop jumpers. Parker will also fool Ibaka now and then by pulling back, convincing Ibaka the attack is over, and then darting through the lane as Ibaka retreats to Duncan.
But there is a case to be made that if the Thunder are going to have a big man run around with Parker near the three-point line, they might assign that job to their quickest big man — even if doing so takes the league’s best shot-blocker away from the rim.
Brooks also started having the defenders on the weak side slide further into the paint — and do so sooner than they were in the first half. Look how far Fisher strayed from Danny Green on this fourth quarter Parker/Duncan pick-and-roll:
Ditto for Harden, standing in the center of the paint on the next San Antonio possession, far from his assignment (Kahwi Leonard in the left corner):
The goal is to protect the paint more aggressively — to make the Spurs hesitant on drives and passes, and bump Duncan on his rolls to the rim. This isn’t a fail-safe, of course. The Spurs have solved every wrinkle thrown at them this season. Playing far off shooters in this way provides openings for back-cuts, and both Leonard and (especially) Green have shown that they are aware of those opportunities. Fisher allowed two baskets while ball-watching on this kind of action late in the game — one to Diaw, and one to Leonard — leading the Twitter masses to justifiably wonder where Sefolosha was. The strategy becomes more precarious once Popovich replaces a cold-shooting Green with the ultra-creative Ginobili.
But the Thunder have to try something. Perhaps they should experiment with Sefolosha on Parker, and/or with going under the initial screens, rather than chasing Parker over them. Maybe they should trap Parker more aggressively, hoping that they can recover properly before Parker finds an open Duncan.
I don’t know the answer, but I know the status quo isn’t working. The Thunder need a solution — and they’re running out of time.