Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Small Ball (Almost) Saves OKC

Everyone will talk about the final 0.1 second of OT, but the most important storyline of the Thunder's Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies came early in the third quarter. Down 20 and with their season slipping away, Scott Brooks went small and took his worst offensive players off the floor, going with Ibaka-Durant-Butler-Jackson-Westbrook. That unit, along with one where Collison replaced Ibaka, then went on a 21-2 run.

Memphis had complete control of the game when OKC was playing with two post players, which they did for the majority of the first half. The Thunder couldn't turn them over, so the game was played station-to-station in the half-court, with the Grizzlies pounding the ball inside and controlling the clock. On the other side of the floor, Memphis clogged the paint and jammed up the OKC offense.

When they went 4-out, the floor opened up and the game started getting up and down. All of a sudden, there was room for Westbrook, Durant and Jackson to attack the lane and the Memphis defenders had to defend all 5 Thunder players all over the court. OKC was basically playing in semi-transition for the entire second half, where their advantage in athleticism and 1-on-1 play could take over.

The match-up that made that substitution possible was Durant guarding Marc Gasol. That's the thing about Gasol - even though he's 300+ pounds, he's more of a dancing bear who likes to beat you with finesse and pin-point passing. He's not a guy whose totally comfortable bludgeoning smaller defenders in the paint and looking for his own shot. KD couldn't stop him, but he made him work, the same as Ibaka and Collison.

Going into Game 6, there's going to be a lot of pressure on Scott Brooks. There are a couple personnel issues that have become apparent:

1) Thabo Sefolosha is killing OKC. He's not shooting 3's and Mike Conley has figured out how to get around his length on defense. How much rope is he getting from Brooks on Thursday?

2) That goes double for Derek Fisher, who garbaged into his way into a few spot-up shots but was otherwise totally useless. He takes bad shots, he doesn't play defense and he dramatically worsens their overall team speed and length. If he's in the game, it should only be because Westbrook and Jackson are too tired to play.

3) Most importantly, how much small-ball is Brooks going to be comfortable with? Memphis can't guard OKC when they are 4-out with KD and Ibaka/Collison upfront - that was clear from Game 5.

We'll see if Dave Joerger can make an adjustment, but if the Grizzlies get out to a huge lead because Brooks stuck with his starters, that should be about all she wrote for his tenure in OKC.

Playoff games are won and lost on a razor's edge, especially in a series where there have been 4 straight OT games. You need coach to be able to read the match-ups and make adjustments quickly - at the very least, if Brooks isn't going to be pro-active about altering his line-ups, he needs to be much more reactive than he has shown himself to be over the last few playoff runs.

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