After four straight playoff runs with the same starting line-up no matter what the situation, Scott Brooks finally made an adjustment before Game 6, moving Caron Butler in for Thabo Sefolosha. Kendrick Perkins has been the lightning rod for most of the criticism, but in his own way, Sefolosha has been just as big a drag on the Oklahoma City Thunder offense. On Thursday, we saw what it looked like without him.
Butler is hardly a world-beater, but he is a perimeter player who can shoot 3’s and put the ball on the floor, two things Sefolosha has never been great at. When you have him, Perkins and Serge Ibaka in the line-up, that’s two guys who can’t threaten you off the ball and three guys who can’t create their own shot. That, in turn, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook gets criticized for some of the shots he takes, but a lot of times there’s no other option on the floor. The Thunder starters play in no space and there aren’t many options when the shot clock starts going down. Combine that with Brooks’ rather unimaginative play-calling and you have a situation where Durant and Westbrook have to force up shots, even when they don’t have anything.
That one switch in the line-up opened up everything for OKC. For the first time in the series, they got out to the early lead, opening up on a 14-8 run and never looking back from there. With Butler and Ibaka spotting up and Perkins hanging around the basket, there was enough space for Westbrook and Durant to create offense without having 2-3 Memphis defenders draped all over them.
Sefolosha is a very good perimeter defender, but it’s not like Westbrook and Durant can’t handle tough assignments. Westbrook did just as good a job on Conley as Sefolosha - you don’t need to hide him on defense, that’s part of what makes him a great player. Westbrook is 6’3 with a 6’8 wingspan and Durant is 6’11 with a 7’4 wingspan and they are both elite athletes - the SG next to them doesn’t need to be a great defender.
With Sefolosha a free agent this summer, expect to see Jeremy Lamb in the starting line-up for OKC next season. While Lamb is a much better player than Caron Butler, there’s only so much you can expect from Scott Brooks at once. He’s a great athlete in his own right, he’s an elite shooter and he’s capable of attacking a close-out - Westbrook/Lamb/KD with Reggie Jackson off the bench is going to absolutely destroy people.
The Thunder brought in Sefolosha to match-up with Kobe Bryant, but the days of a Western Conference contender building their team around matching up with the LA Lakers have come and gone. Sefolosha is a pair of training wheels OKC no longer needs. The only real question is how much better they could have been if Brooks had taken them off 2-3 years ago.