It is very hard to turn the Oklahoma City Thunder, the league’s second-best offensive team in the regular season and the best in the playoffs, into the equivalent of the Sacramento Kings or New Jersey Nets on offense. But that’s what happened all season when the Thunder starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha was on the floor. That five-man group scored 100.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have put the Thunder between the Kings and Nets at 24th in the league, according to NBA.com’s stats tool.
But that group was fantastic defensively, holding teams to about 93 points per 100 possessions, which is to say it turned every opponent into the Bobcats. That was the trade-off: Playing three non-scorers in Perkins, Ibaka and Sefolosha sabotaged the offense, but it also boosted the defense and kept the Thunder’s bench dynamic intact. It was an imperfect balance, just as it had been in previous seasons with former Oklahoma city forward Jeff Green starting, but it worked.
Problem: It hasn’t worked in the playoffs, and it has fallen on its face as the competition has gotten better. Playoff opponents have outscored the Thunder starters by about 4.5 points per 100 possessions, with all the damage coming via the Spurs in the Western Conference finals and the Heat in the Finals. The Thunder starters actually outplayed the Mavericks’ and Lakers’ in the first two rounds, but they have been unable to keep up with better teams that play a smaller, quicker style and put more shooting on the floor.
The trend reached its nadir in Game 2 of the Finals, when the Heat outscored Oklahoma City by 17 points over about 13 minutes combined at the start of the first and third quarters. It is time for a change. Coach Scott Brooks bristled at the idea that he might change his starting lineup, and that’s his style; he’s stubborn about his lineups and loyal to his guys. In the pre-Perkins days, he kept running Green out there for huge minutes despite multiple seasons of evidence that Brooks’ starting units just did not work. But playoff series against truly elite competition call for major adjustments. Brooks just watched the Spurs insert Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup, and the Mavericks famously swung last season’s Finals by promoting J.J. Barea when the stakes were highest.
If Brooks is going to start the same five players in Miami, he at least has to come with a quicker hook on one of his big men. There is just no reason to keep this unit — any unit, really — on the floor for nearly seven minutes when it’s clear an opponent is eating it up.
The big, slow Perkins will be the scapegoat here. But the issue is less about Perkins than about what happens when you play three guys who require very little defensive attention. The floor shrinks, space disappears, players with similarly little shooting range bump into each other in the lane and entire possessions go to waste. This is a problem for every team, but perhaps a more pressing one for Oklahoma City, both in general and in this series. Their two productive scoring starters, Durant and Westbrook, bring limitations that make the work even more difficult. Westbrook is a below-average three-point shooter whom defenses do not have to guard beyond the arc. And Durant, for all his greatness, can still become a passive bystander once the first action designed to free him fails.
Watch, for instance, as Heat forward Shane Battier totally ignores Perkins to jump in the lane to bust up this Westbrook/Ibaka pick-and-roll, and how when Westbrook finally decides to drive, three Heat help defenders are waiting in the paint — in part because the three players they are assigned to guard are also hanging around the basket:
Or take this pick-and-roll, where Battier again abandons Perkins (the screener), Dwyane Wade leaves Sefolosha to swipe at Westbrook’s drive and Westbrook in the end must try to force a pass out of a crowded lane:
What Westbrook does here is smart: He runs the pick-and-roll away from Durant on the right wing, knowing that the Heat tend to send help off the weak-side shooters — a strategy that could leave Durant open for a kick-out pass here. But he never comes open because James, Durant’s defender, doesn’t have to crash into the paint; it’s crowded enough as it is.
The easy solution would be to let Durant run the offense, and Brooks made that adjustment early in the second half. But it’s hard for Durant to do anything but pass on this would-be pick-and-roll, when he sees Mario Chalmers leaving Sefolosha to crowd the right block, Wade preparing to crash off Westbrook, Perkins clogging his potential driving lane and Chris Bosh primed to help off Ibaka:
It just isn’t working on offense. This unit is attempting fewer threes and earning many fewer foul shots — trends that have carried over from the regular season. More disturbing: It is using a much larger percentage of possessions on mid-range shots rather than shots at the rim, a new development for this group in the postseason. About 38 percent of this lineup’s attempts in the playoffs have been mid-range jumpers, compared to a 31 percent share for the Thunder overall, per NBA.com. Oklahoma City is a great mid-range-shooting team, but when you combine that mid-range uptick with fewer rim shots, fewer threes, fewer foul shots and a slower pace, the damage adds up.
It’s not as if Brooks doesn’t understand this. When the Heat play both Bosh and Udonis Haslem, Brooks has had Nick Collison rove away from Haslem in order to muck up Miami’s spacing. And Brooks has proved adaptable in these playoffs. He slid Sefolosha onto San Antonio point guard Tony Parker in Game 3 of the conference finals and has already played the quartet of Sefolosha, Harden, Durant and Westbrook — a potentially dynamite two-way small-ball combination when paired with a single big man — for 56 minutes in the playoffs after using the four together for just 104 minutes in the regular season, per NBA.com.
But this is not just about Oklahoma City. The Heat bring the unique problem of a team playing small-ball for nearly 85 percent of the game, including at the start of both halves. Indeed, Brooks needs only to look across the court to see a coach adapting his rotation choices to best fit this matchup. Erik Spoelstra started Bosh in Haslem’s place in Game 2 rather than going with a traditional lineup with two big men, and he played the two together for just 8:59 in Game 2 — stretches the Heat lost by three points combined. Battier is feasting on open threes as Ibaka or Perkins struggle to chase him on the perimeter and battle their own instincts to help in the paint, and he has had enough space to even mix in an old-man off-the-dribble floater here and there:
So what is Brooks supposed to do? The only real answer is to go smaller, sooner, and for more minutes. This isn’t a fail-safe; he still has to find the right big man among Perkins, Ibaka and Collison, and he showed in Game 1 (with Collison) that he will roll with whichever of the three seems to be working. And in a one-game sample size, some combinations just won’t work. The Heat have torched the Westbrook/Durant/Harden/Sefolosha/Ibaka lineup for which everyone clamors in a measly seven minutes during this series. Meanwhile, the less popular version of that lineup, with Derek Fisher in Sefolosha’s place, has done well in brief minutes in this series and in the playoffs overall.
Those lineups still aren’t elite shooting groups, but they can at least spread the floor better and add one more capable ball-handler, opening up more possibilities for the Thunder when Miami inevitably crowds the Oklahoma City stars in the paint. The Heat want to force the Thunder’s secondary players into finishing possessions, and smaller lineups improve those finishing skills a bit by spacing the floor and adding another player who can at least credibly dribble and shoot. Take this Sefolosha three-pointer, for instance:
Or this Harden three-pointer on a dish from Sefolosha:
Again, nothing is guaranteed against elite competition. And in a one-game sample size, a few good bounces and a random outburst of energy could turn the tables for the Thunder’s maligned starters. But the bigger picture suggests that this lineup is a liability against Miami, and that Brooks needs to adjust accordingly. It’s a huge adjustment, one that might bruise an ego or two and stretch the coaching staff. But this is the Finals, not a road trip in January. This is for everything, and it’s the time to maximize your odds on every possession.