The coverage of Oklahoma City’s resounding victory Thursday in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals will focus on coach Scott Brooks’ smart decision to sic Thabo Sefolosha on San Antonio’s Tony Parker and to generally play the Thunder guard longer minutes and in small lineups featuring all three of the team’s scoring stars in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Sefolosha was indeed huge in the 102-82 victory in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder will try to even the series in Game 4 on Saturday. He is a more balanced defender than Westbrook, more capable of sliding from one place to another without losing control of his momentum. (Seriously: Sefolosha is one of the most-balanced players in the league. He is like a ballet dancer on the court.) That combination of agility and control helps him slither around screens without yielding as much distance as Westbrook might, and it also allows him to cover more ground when he roves and recovers. If either team shared its deflection numbers, I’d bet heavy money that the Thunder piled up more on Thursday than the Spurs, and that Sefolosha recorded nearly a half-dozen at the point of attack — little knocks of the ball that disrupt rhythm and timing, even if they don’t lead to turnovers.
But that wasn’t Brooks’ only major adjustment. The Thunder switched more often on high pick-and-rolls, mostly those involving Spurs center Tiago Splitter as the screener. That strategy sends at least two messages:
1. The Thunder don’t fear Splitter as a post-up threat against their guards, either because of Splitter’s limitations (as both a scorer and foul shooter) or Oklahoma City’s faith in its collective ability to help and recover.
2. The Thunder like the idea of their athletic big men — mostly forwards Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant — chasing guards Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal more than they like the idea of defending the pick-and-roll with the same broken, traditional strategy they used in Games 1 and 2. That is one way the Thunder leveraged their athleticism advantage in Game 3. This Oklahoma City team is never going to match San Antonio’s systematic brilliance, but the Thunder have by far the best runners and jumpers, and Brooks used that raw edge to inject a little crazy into Game 3.
The Spurs’ pick-and-roll game thrives on a combination of predictability and a kind of scripted improvisation. The defense goes here, we pass the ball there. If the defense responds this way, we can respond by doing either X or Y.
But there is nothing really in the script for Westbrook’s abandoning Ginobili — not some run-of-the-mill guard — to commit acts like this against Parker:
This is an extreme example from Game 3 of how the Thunder put defenders in places the Spurs didn’t quite expect them to be. It’s an adjustment that went well beyond Sefolosha and one that mainly involved packing the paint earlier and more aggressively than the Thunder had done in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio. The aggression caught the Spurs by surprise early, and they never recovered. The Spurs scored only 24 points in the paint and made just 12-of-25 (48 percent) from the lower half of the painted area. They shot a combined 43-of-68 (63.2 percent) in the first two games while averaging 46 points in the paint, according to NBA.com’s stats database.
Here’s Tim Duncan, steely veteran of 187 playoff games, looking unnerved by the sudden appearance of Ibaka — who is theoretically guarding Boris Diaw on this possession — right in front him at the foul line as Diaw sits wide open under the rim, leading to one of the Spurs’ 21 turnovers:
There is nothing different strategically about how the Thunder defend the initial Parker/Duncan pick here, other than that Sefolosha is guarding Parker and is more of a threat to disrupt Duncan from behind once Duncan catches Parker’s pass. But it’s the same basic technique that the Spurs shredded in the first two games: Sefolosha shades Parker left and Kendrick Perkins slides off Duncan to contain Parker, leaving Duncan wide open on the roll. The adjustment comes with how Ibaka ignores Diaw and how Westbrook gets a little bolder in playing off Danny Green on the right wing.
Westbrook and the Thunder show a similar boldness on the Spurs’ next possession, another Duncan/Parker pick-and-roll near the top of the key:
Freeze the play as Parker turns the corner, and you see two significant things:
1. Ibaka (near the free-throw line) already has one foot in the paint, ready to slam Duncan on the roll.
2. Westbrook has taken two or three steps up and away from Green in the right corner, a dangerous move against a Spurs team more proficient than any other at creating corner threes. But Westbrook’s positioning here makes him a threat in any potential passing lane to Green (and potentially to Duncan) and puts him in a spot where he can crash on Parker’s dribble penetration.
There are openings for San Antonio in both of these clips. Diaw is wide open in each one, first under the rim and then on the perimeter — the latter a place from which he has made plays off dribble drives throughout the playoffs when left open like this (especially against the Clippers in the second round). The pick-and-pop jumper for Duncan has been there whenever he has wanted it, though Sefolosha and Ibaka combined to at least make him think about it. Westbrook’s strategy on Green here opens up the possibility of backdoor cuts, something I’d expect the Spurs to incorporate during Game 4.
The Thunder packed the paint the entire game. Look at Harden’s sliding right into the middle of the paint, well off Kawhi Leonard in the right corner, even as Neal begins his pick-and-roll drive on this play early in the second quarter:
From a possession a few minutes later, look at how all three of Oklahoma City’s weakside defenders have at least one foot in the paint as Ginobili prepares to hit Duncan on a pick-and-roll on the right wing:
And, holy cow, look at the wall of Thunder players Parker encounters on this pick-and-roll late in the second quarter:
It’s on the Spurs and their great coaching staff to adjust now. Coach Gregg Popovich replaced Diaw with Matt Bonner earlier than usual in Game 3, hoping Bonner’s shooting would provide some spacing that was not available as Ibaka roved from Diaw. But Bonner is just 1-of-8 from beyond the arc in the series, and the Thunder managed to run him off the three-point line a few times on Thursday. Stephen Jackson subbed in with Bonner (and for Leonard) early in both the first and third quarters, perhaps another attempt at generating more three-point shooting from the non-corner areas — places from which Leonard, a borderline corner specialist from deep, isn’t reliable.
The Spurs might also run Parker through more off-ball screens, or have the other guard on the floor — usually Green — set an early pick for Parker, a strategy designed to force the Thunder to switch defenders. And though Duncan has shot poorly in this series from the block, he should be able to go at Ibaka one-on-one when that matchup emerges.
The larger adjustment, though, might simply be playing with more precision — faster reads, quicker passes, assertive backdoor cuts and instant dribble-drives from secondary players whom the Thunder are leaving open and will thus have to close out on aggressively. All of these things are in San Antonio’s toolbox. You don’t set the league on fire for 50 games without being able to adjust and work fourth and fifth options.
But the Spurs better find their offensive groove again, because we have zero evidence they can stop Oklahoma City’s offense. The Thunder are lighting up the Spurs to the tune of 108.6 points per 100 possessions in three games, according to NBA.com, a number that would have been neck-and-neck with San Antonio’s league-leading regular-season mark. The Thunder performed nearly this well against the Spurs’ defense in three regular-season meetings, and they have managed to get to the free-throw line at a very good rate against the foul-averse Spurs in the six games combined.
The Spurs might have a standout defensive game in them, but we haven’t seen one yet. The Thunder will make San Antonio’s life difficult if they keep playing Durant, Westbrook and Harden together for big minutes — and simultaneously removing at least one nonthreatening offensive player. The Spurs may ultimately have to win this series on offense, and the Thunder proved Thursday that they could subdue San Antonio for at least one game with some smart adjustments. What will you have for us on Saturday, Coach Pop?