Friday, October 30, 2015

Thunder vs. Magic

This was just a fabulous basketball game. Both teams have to be super-high on the watch-ability index. The Thunder you already know about - it's everything you always liked about this team except with a coach willing to be flexible and creative with his rotations and without a bunch of decrepit veterans like Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha uglying up the action. The Magic are quickly becoming a low-key League Pass favorite. They play fast and small all game long and they have a ton of young talent up and down their rotation. This game was a great advertisement for the modern NBA - put enough skilled athletes in space and the ball is going to flow, points are going to be scored and good things are going to happen.
  • Orlando joined the 4-out revolution this season when they decided to start Tobias Harris at the 4 and they certainly seem like a case of personnel triumphing over the coach when it comes to the identity of a team. At least for the moment, they really aren't playing like a Scott Skiles team. They are spreading the floor, pushing the ball, firing up 3's and not playing a ton of defense. The most striking thing is how free all of their young guys are playing - they definitely aren't trying to hold the ball, look back at the bench and see what the coach wants them to do. Harris, Evan Fournier, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton can all bring the ball up and start the offense so it's so easy for them to start running and getting the game going up-and-down. 
  • Harris is a super tough cover for traditional 4's and even guys like Serge Ibaka because he's a comfortable 3-point shooter at 6'9, he can put the ball on the floor and handle like a guard and he has the size to get all the way to the rim and finish. It's very hard for a bigger guy to stay in front of a player like that while still being able to contest his shot. Harris at the 4 is a lot like Mirotic at the 4 with the way he opens up the game for everyone else - the difference is he's a much more fluid athlete. What you have to do against a guy like that is get him back on the other end of the floor, particularly on the glass. A team like OKC without really skilled big men is probably better off fighting fire with fire and going 4-out against Harris, which is what the Thunder did in the 2nd half.
  • I've always loved Fournier because he's a volume three-point shooter with a diverse offensive game, which you don't see all that often. He's a clever ball-handler and a deceptive athlete who can slice through the paint on the drive and he can move the ball and create shots for other people. There's a very crowded wing rotation in Orlando both now and into the future but to me Fournier has to be out there. The name of the game in the modern NBA is spacing and a plus shooter who contributes in every other category makes line-ups he is in way more potent. If the Magic don't sign him to an extension, I'd be willing to throw a lot of money at him in restricted free agency.
  • Oladipo did a lot of things right on Friday and he hit two crazy hero-ball 3 shots at the end of regulation and OT but he just flat out takes too many low-percentage shots. With so many skilled players around him, there's no reason he needs to be putting up 8-27 stat lines. He wasn't a high FGA guy at Indiana and that has never been the strength of his game. I would want to move him in a slightly different role just so he doesn't feel the need to force up so many shots. I think he's most useful on defense using his size to guard 1's and if he's going to be so ball-dominant he's most useful on offense when he's playing as a super-sixth man. Orlando still has to figure out what the long-term plan on the perimeter is going to be and what role they want Oladipo to have will be right in the middle of it. 
  • The new pace-and-space system makes Payton a little redundant because just about everyone in the rotation can create their own shot so there's no need to have a PG who isn't a threat on offense holding the ball and trying to create shots for everyone else. He made 2 3's which is nice but teams really aren't guarding him on the perimeter. It's not that he can't be a really good player in the right system - it's just that I'm not sure the rest of the Magic roster maximize the strength of his game. What good is a high-level PG defender if the other team can just put him in a ball screen and take advantage of the C all night long?
  • Nik Vucevic is like a more refined Enes Kanter without all the publicity. It's crazy he got $54 million and everyone though the contract was too high and then Kanter blows past that at $70 million the next year. He's so smooth on offense it's ridiculous. He's got a complete post game, super-soft touch around the rim and a great mid-range jumper. He was 9-9 in the first half and he was just getting buckets at will on everyone the Thunder were throwing at him. OKC clamped down in the 2nd half and let the Magic take more 3's instead of pounding the ball into Vucevic and the Orlando guys took them up on the offer.
  • The real problem with Vucevic is on the other side of the floor. He's not going to block a lot of shots and protect the rim and he's not going to get out and defend on the perimeter and try to muck up the two-man game. He just kind of falls back into the middle of the lane and stands there without really doing anything. OKC made up a huge deficit in the 4Q by running the two-man game at Vucevic pretty much every time down the floor. They were playing 4-out and isolating him in max space and it was just buckets, buckets, buckets. Skiles needs to figure out something there because he's just so freaking good on offense there has to be a way to make it work. He has the tools to at least be decent on defense - he's 7'0 260 with a 7'5 wingspan and he's not a stiff. 
  • I'm a huge Aaron Gordon guy and he's going to have to get his minutes moved up over the course of the season. He's by far their best perimeter defender and the difference when he was guarding KD verse everyone else was night and day. He's 6'9 and he's super fast and he has a really high basketball IQ. Good things happen when Gordon is on the floor and he's really the only one of their perimeter guys who doesn't play out of control. He was 4-4 from the field including a nice floater off the drive, a 3-point shot and a turnaround jumper in the post over KD. He also went to the free-throw line 8x (twice as much as Payton and Oladipo combined) because he knows what he's doing and he's so big that when he gets into the lane and starts flailing his arms he's going to draw contact.
  • Mario Hezonja is in a great situation because he can just be a guy - he doesn't have the weight of the franchise on his shoulders ala Porzingis in New York. He's 6'8, he can shoot 3's and he's very athletic so he can just run to spots, spot up and attack off the dribble if defenders close out on him too much. I really like the 2nd-unit line-ups with Hezonja, Fournier and Gordon - those 3 really know what they are doing out there..
  • Here's how I'd break down the line-up situation in Orlando:
    • I need Gordon for his defense.
    • I need Harris as a small-ball 4.
    • I need Fournier for his volume 3-point shooting.
    • End of the day, I think you have to choose between Payton and Oladipo. I'd really think about Oladipo at the 1 under the idea that he doesn't have to dominate the ball and all four of their perimeter guys can initiate the offense. 
    • I'd also be really intrigued by adding Hezonja in the mix and going 6'7-6'8-6'9-6'9 on the perimeter. From there, you could have either one of your two guards and play five-out or go the other way with an offensive 5 like Vucevic or a defensive 5 like Dedmon.
  • I think a lot of people would look at it like they already have so much invested in Payton and Oladipo and you don't want to give up on either guy so early in their career by moving them to the bench. That's true except ... Gordon was a No. 4 overall pick! You have a lot invested in that guy too and he's had no problem coming off the bench. He's going to have to be a starter sooner rather than later and if I'm going to have a designated defender and non-shooter in the line-up, I'd rather he be 6'9 than 6'3 or 6'4. 
Billy Donovan is clearly still in the experimentation stage with OKC, which is awesome because I can't say I remember Brooks experimenting all that much. It was like he was so dead set on playing his vets that he didn't want to give anyone else a chance to show what they could do and force him to take Perk and Fish out behind back and put them out to pasture. The Thunder need to figure out the defense and there's no need for KD to play 54 minutes in a regular season game (even if it went 2OT) but Donovan has a ton of different options and he's going to cycle through them and find out which ones work best.
  • After staying with two post men all through the San Antonio game, Donovan went 4-out early and often in this one. The way those KD at the 4 line-ups space the floor is just so money. From there the question is which pieces fit around him. He played a lot of Kanter at the 5, KD at the 4 which is the max shot-creation line-up but there's obviously some defensive issues there. KD at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5 is the max spacing line-up and I'm not quite sure how to characterize KD + Adams but that is really interesting too. Adams has some post moves - he had a really nice spin move on Vucevic and I'd love to see him get involved more when he's out there. If he can give you 60-75% of Kanter on offense, he is going to be a very special player.
  • Kyle Singler was the beneficiary of the decision to go small, as he played 13 minutes after getting a DNP-CD against the Spurs. He didn't do a lot when he was out there but I like the combination of size, shooting and athleticism he brings to the table and he's capable of putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim as well. My gut tells me the money line-up for OKC is going to be the Big 3 + Singler and then you can go post offense with Kanter, post defense with Adams, extra shooting with Morrow, extra playmaking with Augustin or extra shot-creating with Waiters. They went Big 3 + Singler + Morrow in the 2Q and the amount of space that KD and Russ had in the 2-man game was just senseless.
  • Russell Westbrook in 4-out space is an MVP-caliber player and he's probably my favorite player in the league to watch. The speed he plays the game at is just unreal. The game is really too easy for him when he's out there. The shot he hit to send the game into OT was flat-out absurd and his flex game afterwards was as next level as you would expect. He got to the line 16x on Friday because him coming off a ball screen with a head of steam might be the most unguardable thing in the league.
  • Westbrook had 48 points and Durant had 43. It was just one of those games where the two of them scored at will and there was really nothing the other team could do to stop them. I really don't see any reason for this duo to break up and I'm thinking the only team that can beat OKC is Golden State. It feels like everything is pointing towards those two teams squaring off at some point in the playoffs.
  • That's really the only thing I would worry about with DJ Augustin, who was the revelation of this game. He's by far the most well-rounded offensive player of their supporting cast and he's a perfect complement to KD and Russ on that side of the ball. Augustin and Waiters were both +24 against Orlando and I'm going to give the majority of the credit to that to DJ. He knows when to shoot, when to drive and when to pass and he's a threat at all 3, which is really what you want next to your stars. The problem is while you can hide him pretty easily on a PG like Payton, there's nowhere to hide someone against Golden State. He's just too small to guard any of their perimeter guys and he's probably going to have to be de-emphasized in a series with the Warriors. It's a shame because I do appreciate that UT connection with him and Durant.
  • Waiters did a lot of good things on Friday - he just needs to stop taking some of these doo-doo man shots. It's a lot like Oladipo. You have too many good players on your team to be holding the ball and forcing up nonsense. It's just unnecessary. Hopefully that's something he figures out over the course of the season because he could really help them if he gets his shot selection under control. 
  • Morrow can't really defend but his release is so fast it's insane. Playing Morrow with KD and Russ is pretty much infinite points because you have to stay on him and you can't leave him open for even a second on the perimeter. If they could just combine Roberson and Morrow into one guy, that guy would be a max player.
  • The thing with Roberson is you just have to watch the spacing. I don't even care if he scores; he just needs to not get in everyone else's way. There was one sequence in the beginning of the game where Russ is coming off a pick and he gets to the rim and has to dump the ball off to Roberson because for some insane reason their SG is standing 3 feet from the rim on the strong side of the ball. It might be like with Thabo in Atlanta - if you are going to have Roberson out there, you need to have a shooter at the 5 so that he's the designated non floor spacer. Playing Roberson and Adams together could be really tough in a playoff series.
Big picture wise, OKC is going to have to play much better defense. They gave up 67 points to Orlando in the first half and Kanter wasn't even playing that much. What I wonder is how much of that is Orlando because it really feels like other teams are going to have a hard time stopping them. They play a 9-man rotation and 8 of those guys are skilled and comfortable with the ball in their hands. The only guy who can't kill you on offense is their backup C. Long story short, they are a team to watch this season, for entertainment value if nothing else. 

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