Final Score: Thunder 114, Nets 93
Record after a loss: 10-1
Points: Durant with 27, Harris, Lopez with 19
Rebounds: Sefolosha with 8, Kris Humphries with 7
Assists: Westbrook, Maynor with 7, Uzoh with 5
You know what is always a sweet sight to see? Thunder starters sitting on the bench in the 4th quarter with smiles on their faces.
I left this blowout game with three distinct impressions:
- The spread of talent.
- The passing.
- The “tip-test.”
1. The spread of talent. The Thunder have more talent. Obviously. Their three best players (Durant/Westbrook/Green) are better than the Nets’ three (Harris/Lopez/take your pick). In any given quarter, any team’s best two to three players can outperform the opposition’s best. This is what we saw in the 1st quarter against the Nets. Both Harris (missing from game 1) and Lopez played well early on, while Durant and Westbrook played sloppily. Durant committed three early turnovers. Westbrook made some bad reads on his passes, got his shot blocked three times, and missed four early shots. So it was not surprising that the Nets led by three as the quarter wound down.
It was the last few minutes the Nets would lead, because at that point the talent disparity between the two teams, not just two players, became apparent. With 1:35 left in the quarter, Durant and Westbrook sat down, giving way to Maynor and Harden. Harden, once again acting as the spark plug to get the team going, hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds to go to tie the game at 24. From this point in time until Westbrook & Durant re-entered the game, the Thunder went from down three to up six. Consistently, the 2nd unit has outperformed the opposition’s 2nd unit.
In the NBA, where there are dozens of possessions to run through, the discrepancies between talent start off small. Over the course of the game’s progression, those small differences extrapolate to become margins. A three point lead in the 1st quarter doesn’t seem like much, but if you win each quarter by three, that’s a 12 point win, a solid victory margin. So it goes with talent disparity. James Harden might seem like he’s only slightly better than Ben Uzoh, but collectively, the combination of Harden/Maynor/Collison/Ibaka makes each of those small discrepancies into big discrepancies. The Nets simply could not offer the breadth of talent, and the final score reflected it.
2. The passing. I’ll say it again, ad infinitum. Good passing begets good passing. Occasionally you get PG superstars that can consistently throw out 15 assist games. Those players are rare. If you don’t have one of those once-in-a-generation guys, what is almost as good, and actually sometimes better, is the PG who puts the passing mindset into the rest of his teammates.
Against the Nets, Westbrook “only” tallied seven assists. However, you could see that his passing play helped encourage his teammates to pick up the reins and get involved in the action themselves. Westbrook’s backup, Maynor, collected seven of his own in only 19 minutes of play (14 total assists from the PG position). Jeff Green had five playing out of his swing position, to go along with Durant’s two. Harden, also coming off the bench, brought another four.
Collectively, the team had 31 assists on 45 made field goals. This efficiency led to an outstanding (but not statistically outlying) shooting percentage of 54.9% for the game. Contrast this effort with the Nets, who had only 14 assists for the game (three by their starting PG).
Good passing begets good passing and allows you to score on any team.
3. The “tip test.” History lesson time. For this final point, I harken back to the days of the 1996 Chicago Bulls and their terrifying perimeter defense. They did lead the league with an average of 105.2 points per game, but what allowed them to crush everyone that year was the fact that they held the opposition to an average of 92.9 points per game. (Stats provided by basketball-reference.com) And yet, they did not have anyone who resembled a dominant interior defensive presence. They accomplished it by playing a perimeter defense that was so suffocating that, when they really cranked it up, they made it difficult for teams to even complete passes, let alone get good shot attempts. They called it, “Unleashing the Dobermans.” It was breathtaking to watch opponents wilt under the pressure. The Bulls measured their defensive pressure with something that Coach Phil Jackson referred to as the “tipped pass test.” They actually kept statistics on how many balls the Bulls were able to get a hand on, regardless of whether it ended up in a steal or turnover.
Unleashing the Dobermans
The idea behind it is to really use the short NBA shot clock as a defensive weapon. It will normally take about eight seconds for a team to take a pass from baseline out of bounds and advance it up to the point of engagement in a half-court set. This leaves the team with about 16 seconds to set up an offensive scheme, which usually allows for 1-2 screens, a post-up position play, or perhaps a drive to the basket, leading to a shot with less than five seconds left. Coach Jackson figured that if the Bulls could pressure the ball on the perimeter and force 1-2 extra passes, or better yet, deflect a ball so that the offense has to re-set, the defense has fundamentally changed the offensive scheme dynamic. Now instead of 15 seconds to get a good shot, maybe they only have 10. Instead of two screens, now maybe they can only get one. Maybe it forces them to take a shot through a double-team, or to force a pass that has a lower probability of finding its target. The net result was that, over the course of the season, they held opponents to less than 90 points a staggering 36 times. Think about that – how would you feel if, as a team, you knew that there was only a 56% chance that you would even break 90 points?
My point being, the Thunder passed the “Tip Test” against the Nets. They were frequently active on the perimeter, pressing, denying passing lanes, and getting their hands on passes that caused the Nets to either have to re-set their offense or rush a bad shot. Working on “tip” statistics over the course of an entire game yields huge dividends. The Nets ended up committing 23 turnovers and collecting only 14 assists. In a game where the Thunder ended up attempting 11 more shots (and making 11 more) the effects of the defensive pressure were tangible and immediate.
Ultimately, it was a tipped pass and steal by Jeff Green with 7:09 left that led to a deft pass to a Harden slam that sealed the game, bringing the score to 100-75. You could see it in the Nets’ body language; they had finally quit.
A note on the Nets:
- The Nets played hard in this game, from beginning almost to the end, even though they were down double-digits most of the time. That’s a testament to the organization’s new direction. They made the Thunder work. The game was not a cakewalk.
- Their PG Devin Harris is plenty quick, a decent passer, and a solid scorer. That said, I felt like Jordan Farmar in game 1 was a much better facilitator for their team. In this loss, only Lopez and Harris got any sort of offensive play; most everyone else was left watching. It might be in their best interests to use Harris as trade bait to see if they can get either some more talent and/or draft picks and then rely on Farmar the rest of the way.
Next game: vs the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, December 31 at 8:00PM EST.