I’ve addressed the NBA Finals in detail as part of SI.com’s roundtable, where I made my official pick: Oklahoma City in seven. But I wanted to hit on a few more topics of interest leading up to Game 1 on Tuesday night.
As a general matter, I can’t recall many series in which rotations and matchups were in such flux ahead of the opener. We don’t even know if the Heat are going to start Chris Bosh, and if they do, whether they’ll start two big men against the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins/Serge Ibaka duo, or stick with a smaller lineup featuring both Shane Battier and LeBron James.
That is the first domino in determining how often these two teams play small-ball, with James and Kevin Durant serving as respective power forwards, and to what degree each will respond by matching small-versus-small or going with mismatched lineups. And there are more granular head-to-head matchup questions underlying that general rotation question. James will guard Durant, but he’ll also see time on Russell Westbrook and possibly James Harden. Dwyane Wade can defend both of those players, and the Heat may choose to go without a point guard for stretches in order to facilitate the Wade/Westbrook matchup on both ends — especially because Battier has experience defending Harden and Durant. Thabo Sefolosha can defend any player from among the group of James, Wade, Battier, Mike Miller and James Jones, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks has used him more often in the playoffs as a cog in small lineups than he did in the regular season.
The flexibility here is dizzying, and the mixing and matching might end up being a bunch of hard-to-track noise with little impact on the score. But it’s also possible one coach will discover a formula or two that works sooner than the other, and that could swing a game — and a competitive series.
With all this complexity in mind, here are a few things to watch when Oklahoma City has the ball:• Turnovers, passing and pressure
There’s no other way to say it: The Thunder have blitzed the league in the playoffs, going on a borderline historic run of scoring. Oklahoma City scored 107.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, the second-best mark in the league, but it’s upped that to 110.1 in the playoffs. That’s a monster number, especially given that offense typically drops off in May and June. The Thunder, the NBA’s most turnover-prone team in the regular season, are turning the ball over on just 9.5 percent of their possessions in the playoffs, a rate that would have been the second lowest this season.
They’ve also shown they can work together and pass the ball at an acceptable rate, especially against a Spurs team that loaded up on the Thunder stars in hopes of forcing them into a series of passes — a strategy the Heat will surely use. The Thunder assisted on a league-low 49.7 percent of their buckets in the regular season. That number remained low against both the Lakers and Mavericks before jumping to 54.7 percent against the Spurs. That’s still a bottom-10 mark in the big picture, but an encouraging sign that Durant, Westbrook and Harden are getting even better at deciding whether to pass or shoot in traffic. That uptick also reflected the improved scoring of the Thunder’s role players, each of whom had his moments (entire games, really) of piling up quick points on open looks.
The Heat are a different animal, operating at a different speed, and they will press the Thunder hard. And unlike the Mavs, Lakers or Spurs, Miami forces turnovers often — third most in the regular season. Those turnovers are crucial fuel for the chaos points on which the Heat thrive; take those away and Miami is defensible.
On pick-and-rolls, Miami has its big men blitz the ball-handler hard in order to cut off penetration:
You see the strategy in action in each of the above photos. In both, a Miami perimeter player — Battier (at the free-throw line) in the first, Wade (near the left elbow) in the second — is ready to leave his assigned player on the outside in order to crash down on the big man rolling free to the hoop. This kind of frenetic strategy leaves holes, and Miami’s defense is based on the idea that it can close those holes faster than you can exploit them. It seemed to unnerve both Westbrook and Durant for stretches in the regular season as the Thunder’s high turnover rate jumped even higher in the team’s two-game split with Miami.
Westbrook had eight turnovers combined in two generally miserable games for him. Miami’s speed seemed to make him pause a beat too long in deciding what to do with the ball after picking up his dribble. Those pauses are death against Miami, giving the Heat time to complete rotations and anticipate passes. Westbrook has improved as a playmaker, and this series will test his precision in that regard.
Durant, in trying to dribble past James’ in-your-jersey defense and into waiting help, bounced his way into a season-high nine turnovers in the Thunder’s 98-93 loss at Miami on April 4. The scoring champion must understand that when James pressures him beyond the three-point line, it amounts to a dare that Durant can’t beat him off the dribble or make the proper read against the waiting big-man help defender. Durant did better in Oklahoma City’s 103-87 home win over Miami on March 25, and he helped spring Ibaka, Perkins and Nick Collison for larger-than-expected scoring games against San Antonio. Trapping the ball-handler on a pick-and-roll also potentially leaves the screener open for a pick-and-pop jumper, a way Ibaka might be able to get a few good looks despite occasional hesitancy of his slow-release jumper.
• Durant pin-downs, and that one unstoppable play
Running Durant off screens is a foundation of Oklahoma City’s offense, and Brooks has built several different versions of this to account for a variety of defenses. The Lakers and Spurs at times dealt with Durant’s sideline curls by having their defenders jump up above the screen, getting right into Durant’s direct path toward the top of the key. Durant can respond by cutting backdoor, and Brooks has adjusted by having different players set screens for Durant elsewhere on the floor — under the rim, or on the edge of the paint, for instance. Durant will often have his choice of two screens in different places, a confusing alignment for defenses.
James’ defense slipped a bit for long stretches of the Boston series, and he lost Paul Pierce on the occasional sideline-area screening action. Such slip-ups are fatal against Durant.
Miami in the regular-season trapped Durant hard as he came off screens from his big men, effectively forcing Durant to dribble under pressure or pass to the screener open on the block–just as a third rotating defender came to pester that player (usually Perkins or Ibaka). We will see this sequence play out a lot, and every Thunder player is going to have to make quick reads and accurate passes; otherwise, the Heat’s rotating defenders will catch up and stifle the play.
As for that unstoppable play, it’s the one the Thunder used to clinch both Game 4 and Game 6 against San Antonio: Harden holds the ball up top while Westbrook (on the right wing) cuts toward the hoop and sets a pin-down screen for Durant to pop around:
No team has found an answer for it. And just when an opponent thinks it has something, the Thunder unveil a new ending to the play — such as having Westbrook suddenly cut to hoop when he senses his man getting ready to help out on Durant’s cut around the pick.
How the Heat defend this play will depend a lot on who is on the floor. If Wade is guarding Westbrook, would Miami just switch defenders, hoping Wade can disrupt Durant’s jump shot despite a big height disadvantage? But what if point guard Mario Chalmers is guarding Westbrook? Does Chalmers try to leap off Westbrook ever so quickly and into the passing lane to Durant, giving Durant’s defender (presumably James) time to negotiate the screen? And if Miami goes that route, can it close the openings around the floor before Harden can pass into them?
Miami will face similar choices on both the Durant/Westbrook and Durant/Harden pick-and-roll plays, the former a classic Thunder weapon, the latter a newer one that Oklahoma City has worked on gradually this season. The Heat have tried to avoid switching the Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll in the past, instead hoping Westbrook’s defender can slide under Durant’s pick fast enough so that Durant’s defender doesn’t have to jump off as a way of stopping Westbrook’s dribble. Matchups will be paramount here, too.
• Crunch time
With the exception of a near meltdown against the Spurs in Game 5, the Thunder have solved the late-game isolation yips that killed their playoff run last season. Their offense has scored better than 120 points per 100 possessions in crunch time in the playoffs, and they have shot 15-of-29 in the last three minutes of games in which the score has been within three points either way. They’ve also generated their usual pile of free throws.
Importantly, Harden has taken seven of those 29 shots, which is more than he took in the entire regular season among 120 field-goal attempts in that same time/score category. The Thunder have trusted him late in the pick-and-roll, and they’ve smartly had him run those plays with both Durant and Westbrook on the same wing, opening off-the-ball opportunities for either one if their defenders sag in to contain the pick-and-roll action. Westbrook, by the way, must make himself an active off-ball cutter in this series. The player guarding him on the perimeter will absolutely help off him in order to crowd Durant or Harden, and Westbrook has to punish the Heat by cutting to the hoop or the mid-range area rather than settling for threes.
In any case: Between Harden, the pin-down play described above and the well-timed isolation, the Thunder have been a scoring machine lately. They’ll have to maintain that kind of variety against a locked-in Miami defense.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.