We're hours away from one of the most highly anticipated playoff series in awhile: the Oklahoma City Thunder at the San Antonio Spurs. There are so many interesting themes at play. The Spurs' age contrasted with the Thunder's youth and talent. Solid fundamentals and execution contrasted with superstar talent and athleticism. One of the greatest players to ever play the game in the twilight of his career trying to win a fifth ring against one of the leagues most exciting young teams trying to get to their first Finals appearance.
A Thunder GM who was identified by the Spurs, learned his craft from the best in the business, and like the Spurs, built his team for long term success with a little bit of luck, a commitment to scouting and identifying talent through the draft, player development, and astute cap management. As both organizations are pretty cerebral and analytics driven, one of the more interesting themes will be the tactics employed by both coaches. In that spirit, we've chose to provide a different kind of series preview and have decided to approach this series from the perspective of the coaches. Matt will play the role of Gregg Popovich planning for the Thunder and Chris will play the role Scott Brooks. We'll break down the series from each coach's perspective from an offense, defense, and tactics standpoint.
For those of you following the ESPN Stat Geek Smackdown your Unitary Executives are currently in first place going into the Conference Finals round. This wouldn't be a series preview without a little bit of context, some numbers, and a prediction, so here you go.
Thunder Game Plan From the Perspective of Scotty Brooks
"You want to know who the best is? That's him. Iceman. It's the way he flies, ice cold, no mistakes. He wears you down, you get bored, frustrated, do something stupid, and he's got you."
That was Goose referring to Iceman in Top Gun. He might as well have been talking about the Spurs. To beat the Spurs, you have to understand how they approach the game - each and every player understands the importance of defense, the 3-point shot, floor spacing, and their specific role. They're like a casino that takes their small 1 or 2% edge over each and every possession knowing that they will come out on top at the end of the game. To beat the Spurs the process has to be as important as the result and we have to be upset every time they get a wide-open 3, even if it doesn't go in. When they make a basket we have to get a good shot in return. I can't overemphasize this enough - we won't be better than them in this aspect, but we have to close the gap enough so that our athleticism and talent can win the series.
On defense the key is to make the Spurs shoot shots that aren't 3-pointers, if possible, and then contest the 3. The key to defending the 3-point shot is a fundamental understanding of how the Spurs create such wide-open looks and, more specifically, how each player gets their looks. First, the point of the Spurs attack is to force a double on Duncan or on Parker coming hard off a high pick and roll, create a numbers advantage, and then use that numbers advantage to get a layup or a wide-open 3 through passing and floor spacing. To that end, we will be smart with our doubles and will never hard trap. We'll go under all Tony Parker screens and make him beat us with the long jumper. Against more athletic teams, the Spurs are taught to continue to create numbers advantages by attacking closeouts by pump faking and driving the lane, which effectively takes the closeout defender out of the play. Sometimes they'll wait for the closeout to come and pass at the last second. Part of defending the Spurs is a firm understanding of when to hard contest a shot and when not to.
The following table lists the Spurs' top 3-point shooters by attempts, their 3-point%, and the percentage of their 3's that are assisted. If a shot is assisted, it means that the player can't create his own shot and therefore relies on teammates to create the look.
Spurs players often create their own 3 by pump-faking, dribbling to the side, and then shooting. The takeaway from this table is that we should always close out hard on Matt Bonner, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard and be less inclined to against Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal. If Bonner or Danny Green have a wide open 3, I want you to not only contest but I want you to leave your feet as they're almost never attacking the closeout. Understand that Leonard is capable of attacking the closeout but does not do it in a balanced way - therefore closeout hard the majority of the time on him. Do not leave your feet against Gary Neal or Manu Ginobili as they're skilled in attacking closeouts.
When San Antonio's starters are in, I want Perkins to single Duncan and Ibaka to zone the paint to both deter a Parker drive to the lane and to help on Duncan some percentage of the time. I'm happy with Duncan isolation plays as it beats a wide-open 3 and it makes the chance of an offensive rebound less likely. I'm telling my guys to go under Parker screens 75% of the time and fight through them 25% of the time. I'm leaving a guy in position to always close out on a Leonard 3 and if he has the ball in the mid-range I'm daring him to shoot. I want the following things to happen, in order of preference:
1. Tony Parker jump shot
2. Tim Duncan isolation
3. Kawhi Leonard non 3-point jump shot (I listed this as item 3 as Kawhi almost never shoots 2's and a Duncan isolation is far more likely to happen)
4. Boris Diaw jump shot
When San Antonio's bench is in, I'm putting Harden on Ginobili as I think his athleticism and ability to make Ginobili work on both ends of the court is a net win for us. I'm closing out hard on Bonner, zoning the paint, and leaving Stephen Jackson to help Derek Fisher on any Gary Neal pick and roll. I want Stephen Jackson taking as many shots as possible, followed by Gary Neal, assuming they're not from 3.
Throughout the season I've loved isolation and we've made it easy on defenses, resulting in some pretty bad late game offense. Keeping with the theme that each possession matters, Russell needs to learn the fine line between a good shot and a bad shot. I don't mind him shooting a wide-open 3 or pulling up for a wide-open elbow jumper in transition. I mind when he takes contested 3-pointer early in the shot clock. San Antonio is elite at defending teams that rely on superstars - they wall off the paint effectively and force mid-range jump shots.
Steal good stuff. I'm looking to the teams that did a good job on offense against the Spurs. On offense, the Houston Rockets did about as good of a job scoring on the Spurs as any team in the league. The Rockets don't have a true superstar and the Spurs couldn't scheme to takeaway their main option. Instead the Rockets spread the ball around and forced the Spurs to defend the entire court. The Mavericks tended to shoot their mid-range shots from the right side of the court and even players not named Dirk were fairly efficient.
To that end, I'm asking Russell to take a step back and reduce the number of shots he takes and increasing the number of shots Harden takes. If the Spurs are able to bait Russ into taking contested 2's, we'll lose the series and I've failed as a coach. In the regular season, we were most effective when the offense was spread around and Russ and Kevin took less than 15 shots a piece. When they took over 20 shots, we still often times won, but our offense was not nearly as effective. This spread it around philosophy happens to be the best recipe on offense against the Spurs.
Beating the Spurs is a team effort and our team is most effective when James Harden is working off the pick and roll, taking the ball to the hole and finding open teammates. Harden forces the Spurs to not only contend with athleticism but also to defend the entire court. I'm lining up Russell on the right side of the court where he should have plenty of open mid-range jumpers and space to attack the rim - I'm telling him to attack most of the time but take the jumper when it's there. Our advantage is our athleticism and we should use that athleticism to both get to the line and create for teammates. When all else fails, we're going to Kevin. That's it - we're running our offense through James and Kevin and trying to get the best looks possible and hoping our athleticism will turn the series in our favor.
Spurs Game Plan From the Perspective of Pop
So I'm the greatest coach on Earth, my team hasn't lost in months, and we're 43-4 in the last 47 games that we've actually tried. So this series should be just another small speedbump on the road to a fifth championship, right? Not so fast. The Thunder do a number of things that could cause problems for the Spurs on their way to what seems like an inevitable Finals trip.
The Spurs have a mediocre defense, but they are elite at one category: defensive rebounding. They do a superior job of limiting teams to one shot per possession, which is essential to any good defense. Unfortunately, the Thunder don't derive a ton of offense from rebounding, so this elite skill isn't going to be enough to limit the Thunder's second-ranked offense.
The first item that needs to be addressed with the Thunder is their ability to create fastbreak points. The Thunder are in the top five in both fastbreak points and fastbreak efficiency (the efficiency in turning fastbreak opportunities into points). Unfortunately for the Spurs, they are in the bottom half of the league in both of these categories. So, my strategy would be to pull a Doc Rivers. That is, I am going to basically concede offensive rebounding opportunities in exchange for getting back on defense. I can do this without sacrificing too much offense (the Spurs generate relatively little offense from offensive rebounds), and this strategy can be successful in limiting fastbreak opportunities with a team with older players (the Celtics are in the top 5 in allowing fastbreak points and they employ this strategy extensively).
My first individual player strategy relates to Russell Westbrook. The Thunder have a top-shelf offense largely because of their ability to shoot the ball so well. The exception to this is Westbrook. He is much-improved in jump shooting, but not improved enough to be the best option on the Thunder.
Where Westbrook hurts you is his ability to get to the rim. He is so fast that he can often get there whenever he wants. When we does, it's a problem for opposing teams because of his excellent finishing ability for a small guard (he shoots almost 62% at the rim) and because he draws fouls often and shoots above 80% at the free throw line. I want to defend him by forcing him to shoot pull up jump shots inside the three-point line. So I'm going under all of his pick-and-roll opportunities and hoping he pulls up and shoots the jumper (knowing that we have great rebounders). Also, I'm going to send a second defender on his drives (helping off of Perkins, Fisher, Mohammed, etc...) in order to prevent him from getting to the rim and to try to force him into turnovers, which is another weakness of his and the Thunder.
I have to send help late for the most part because I do want him to take a lot of shots. You may be surprised to learn that he takes the most shots on the Thunder per minute (even more than Durant). I want to do as much as possible to have him shooting the ball at the expense of opportunities for Durant and Harden. And he is certainly willing to oblige if given the opportunity.
The next, and biggest, problem in facing the Thunder is guarding Durant. Part of my strategy for defending Durant is welcoming Westbrook to shoot as many jumpers as he would like. I don't have anyone who can guard him one-on-one, but I can defend him with an overall team strategy. I think I probably trust Kawhi Leonard more than anyone to guard Durant individually, but just like anyone else, I need to keep him away from getting to the rim and from shooting threes. I am going to help off of anyone not named James Harden to keep Durant from getting to the rim and tell my individual defenders to stay at home for threes off the ball and to push up on him when he has the ball and force him into the help. Unfortunately, he's still Kevin Durant, so there is only so much the Spurs can do.
James Harden is another problem. He shoots well, creates well for himself and others, and is a top-tier flopper. That combination, mixed with his left-handedness, reminds a lot of people of his counterpart, Manu Ginobili. The problem with defending Harden is that he is too smart to shoot mid-range jumpers, and is too good of a passer to double or send much help at. I am going to keep him away from his left hand as much as possible and stay at home on him to keep him from getting his assisted threes. And then I'm going to pray.
So, overall, I want to force everyone to beat me not named Westbrook, Durant, and Harden, because their offense beyond those three is pretty limited. If that doesn't work, maybe I can call up Scotty Brooks and see if I can't convince him that Derek Fisher's Playoff Experience is the best chance at the Thunder's first trip to the Finals.
Two years ago I remodeled our offense to take advantage of modern trends and it's been an overwhelming success. The Spurs have the top-ranked offense in the NBA this year and it's even better than that (and almost mid-2000s Phoenix Suns-like) when you only consider the games that their Big Three have played.
I really don't want to change much of the offense because of the high degree of efficiency that the Spurs play with, but a couple of adjustments can be made to take advantage of the Thunder's weaknesses.
The Thunder defend the three well, but that's often due to their athletic ability to close out on shots, which can lead to scrambling with too much ball movement. This plays into the Spurs hands because they pass so well and switch sides with the ball so effortlessly. I am going to stress making even one extra pass to ensure a wide-open look. Also, I'll look to slightly emphasize the pick-and-roll over the inside-out offense, because it will harder for the Thunder to close out on our shots out of the PnR.
Another advantage I want to exploit is Russell Westbrook's willingness to fall asleep off the ball. I don't want to play Tony Parker off the ball that often, because it's not his strength. So I want to set up some guard-guard pick-and-pops and some early shot clock off the ball screens (with a 3 point shooter picking Westbrook) while the ball is in someone else's hands in order to create a mismatch for Tony Parker. Then he'll have a mismatch for the drive and Westbrook will inevitably leave the shooter, which will leave opportunities for a foul or wide-open shot.
But, overall, there isn't much of a gameplan here because the offense is already so good.
This series provides a basketball lover's dream. Two high-scoring offenses, great individual scorers, ball movement, young v. old, etc... Our baseline model predicts the Spurs to win 60% of the time with the most likely outcome Spurs in 7 at 20% followed by the Spurs to win in 5 happening about 18% of the time. Those numbers include the San Antonio tank games, include numbers without Ginobili, and don't include the playoffs - so they underrate the Spurs. We think the Spurs are pretty strong favorites to win, but the Thunder certainly have the players to pull off the upset.