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Tag Archives: Regular Season

Game 3: Reality Check

Final Score: Utah Jazz 120, Thunder 99

Stat winners:

Scoring: Millsap with 30

Rebounding: Millsap with 16

Assists: D. Williams with 15

Analysis:

1) The high level view.

Over the course of 82 games, EVERY team, regardless of how good, have games like this.  There are always a few games where everything is going right for the other team, and everything is going wrong with you, the lead balloons, and the team falls like, well, a lead balloon.   After watching the NBA for decades, I can tell  when it is happening, regardless of whether it is during the regular season or playoffs.  At that point, I’m faced with a choice; I can choose to become bitter, or I can watch the outcome looking for things that matter.  Everything matters; the challenge is finding some silver in the dross and have the patience to refine it.

Given that general rule of thumb, is that what this game was – an anomaly? Statistically, it is possible to conclude that the game was an aberration.  The teams took approximately the same number of shots, got a similar number of team rebounds, and attempted (and made) a similar number of free throws.  So all things being equal, the only large disparity was in the shooting percentage.  The Jazz simply shot better, the Thunder, worse.

However, here is where statistics can often belie reality, especially if you did not watch the game.  By looking at who scored the Jazz points, and where they scored them, and by how many assists contributed to these points, you can see a different story emerge.  The Jazz pummeled the Thunder on the inside.  Millsap and Jefferson met very little resistance in either getting to the spots they wanted or in taking the shots they preferred.  The Thunder’s interior defense was terrible.  This highlights the discrepancy between a team like the Pistons, who have no inside game to speak of, and the Jazz, who are adept at getting the right people the ball in the right places.  The Thunder’s interior defense against the Pistons was actually inflated, if that makes sense, because the Pistons are subpar in this offensive category.  It wasn’t as hard for Ibaka and Krstic to play well against the likes of Ben Wallace and the more perimeter-oriented game of Villanueva.  Against a true blue post-up front line, however, the Thunder were clearly overmatched and unprepared to deal with it.

There aren’t many teams that can throw up such a low post presence, but the Thunder are going to have to decide how they’re going to deal with that kind of lineup over the course of this season.    There is a good chance that the Jazz are going to fall within that low-50 win range, so the likelihood of seeing them in the early rounds of the playoffs is high.

Underscoring that prediction is, of course, that the Jazz are a playoff team.  I think they are, and I think after three games what is apparent is that the Jazz were not as bad as their record reflected, nor are the Thunder as good as their start indicated.

The other note worth mentioning is the gap between where Deron Williams is and where Russell Westbrook is.  Westbrook is a top 5 PG; Williams is probably the best.  When Williams has the proper tools, nobody is currently better at setting up his teammates, managing floor spacing, and possessing the innate ability to chase his own shots only when necessary.  Williams’ 15 assists came mostly within the confines of a half-court offense, which means that he ran the offense on his own terms.  Williams ran it efficiently and he found the right players who had the best shots available per possession.  

It is always difficult to decide how you’re going to guard a player like Williams when he has his entire game working, and sometimes you have to take an unorthodox approach to it. The immediate example that jumps to mind is how the Lakers put Kobe Bryant on Williams during the last two seasons’ playoffs, successfully disrupting the entire Jazz offensive scheme.

2) Silver.

But wait…this is a Thunder blog, yes?  It’s always difficult to find silver linings in a game where you get thoroughly outplayed, but since NBA basketball is often a game of mini-runs (perhaps to the rest room), you can still sometimes find spots where positives stood out.

The main thing that I look for during a blow-out is, how does a team decide it is going to mount a comeback?  When I think of the great teams in the past who had a penchant for knowing how to get back into a game (Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe’s Lakers, Duncan’s Spurs), I create a mental “To Do” list like this:

  • Establish that only heightened defensive performance gives you the best shot at coming back from a 20 point deficit.
  • Get the leading team into foul trouble quickly in the quarters, which will allow your players to get to the free throw line early and often for easy points.  It also lengthens the game, which can sway the law of averages back in your favor.
  • Change defensive strategy, including occasional full court presses.
  • Deviate from offensive weaknesses.  If the three point shot is not falling, stop shooting! It is remarkable how lack of offensive self-awareness frequently derails all the energy put into amounting a comeback.
  • Finish quarters well.  Meaning, when there is a minute left in a quarter, go on mini six to eight point runs.
  • Going into the fourth, cut the lead to under 10 points.

The Thunder did maybe one of those well – they did change up their defensive strategy, and in the 3rd and 4th quarters a few times cut the lead to 15, which is a manageable deficit to actually do something against.

But the rest of my list, they did not do well at all.  They did not play defense in a manner where they believed it was the only way that they could come back.  They certainly have the tools to do it – Durant, Westbrook, Green, and Ibaka are all long guys that can cover large spaces by themselves.

Frequently it was the Jazz that went on the end of quarter mini runs, undoing whatever gains the Thunder had made.  Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps it was youth, perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the situation. Regardless, scenarios like this will happen again.  The challenge is to learn how to deal with it better.  The Thunder need to learn how to deal with large deficits in a more clinical, deliberate, and process driven manner so that when the 4th quarter comes around they can be in a much stronger position to amount a final run that actually has a chance at succeeding.

Next game: at the LA Clippers on Wednesday, Nov. 3.

Game 2: A Finger Roll Prevents a Total Collapse

Final Score: Thunder 105, Pistons 104

Stat Winners:

Scoring: Ben Gordon with 32

Rebounds: Serge Ibaka with 10

Assists: Westbrook with 11

My first impression of this game’s outcome is that although it ended up in the win column, from constructive purposes it felt like a loss.  Jeff Green made a heads-up play in the closing seconds, taking the ball hard to the rim instead of forcing an outside shot.  The shot fell, and the Thunder escaped with a dramatic win.  The Thunder led the game for the majority of the time, but struggled mightily in the 4th quarter when the Pistons made their comeback and nearly pulled out a win.  Clearly my expectations were too high this game, discounting too much the value that Detroit’s home court advantage, along with a decent crowd in the second half, in fueling their comeback.

Perhaps I’m just not yet familiar enough with the workings of this team (pretty much everything in my analysis is inductive at this point), but I have a tendency to see more about what is wrong than what is right.  This is what I saw:

Negative:

  • Once again Durant had a poor shooting night, mimicking his opening game’s shooting witha a 9-24 performance.  I unfortunately did not get a lot of great looks at his game last year, so I don’t know if any regression has taken place, but he seems to be a bit too in love with his shooting stroke at this point.  It reminds me a little bit of Glen Robinson of the Bucks back in the day.  He had a shooting stroke that was so liquid and smooth that he used it constantly, to the detriment of the rest of his game.  He turned into a one dimensional player, and deteriorated rapidly as an impact franchise player.  Likewise, Durant’s shot is so easy for him to shoot from anywhere on the court, from any position, that it seems like he’s too reliant on it to the detriment to the rest of his game.  Despite his slight frame, he is a talented rebounder, but the outside shot takes him out of that part of the game.  Too many times he took shots fading away from the basket, rather than attacking.  During game 1, he was at his best when he was moving forward, which gave him better passing angles as well.
  • The coaching in the second half seemed very suspect.  At that point, the Pistons were consistently about 8 points worse than the Thunder, until Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey started heating up.  Gordon has a weird way of becoming unstoppable at times.  At this point, Gordon was their only hope to get back in the game.  Unfortunately, there were no apparent coaching adjustments made to either get the ball out of his hands or trap him in a way that he could not shoot.    He continued to get one on one isolations and was able to create the space he needed to shoot.  As a result, Gordon almost pulled out the win with his fourth quarter flurry, as well as the key pass that dumped the ball into the hands of Charlie Villanueva for a corner three that allowed the Pistons to enjoy a winning lead for about five seconds.  The Pistons offense isn’t complicated.  The coaching staff should have been able to solve this issue before it got out of hand.
  • The team did not execute well down the stretch.   For all their success at the charity stripe, it was key missed free throws in the end, including one by Durant, that gave the Pistons a shot to win it in the end.  During crunch time, offensive possessions need to become very deliberate where your play maker is going to either produce a good shot late in the clock, or a situation where the defense has to foul.  The team did not get good possessions.

Positive:

  • The dramatic win in the hands of Green masked the real strength of the team’s performance, which was by its big men.  Both Nadad Krstic and Serge Ibaka had huge games, taking advantage of Detroit’s weak interior.  Ben Wallace is still a gamer but he is not the inside presence he once was during his last run with the Pistons.  Villanueva offers some of the Lamar Odom flavor, right down to the oversized bald dome, but as an inside presence he is limited.  The Thunder’s big men combined for 30 points and 17 boards, giving the Thunder a much needed boost while their offense was sporadic.  The addition of Nick Collison to the lineup will further fortify their front line, which will be critical when they start facing the likes of San Antonio and the Lakers.
  • Green continues his push to make an early first impression for his contract extension.  His game winning play was outstanding, giving him a second game scoring 21 points.  Having him as the 2nd or 3rd scoring option will pay large dividends.  He does remain somewhat maddening though to watch, as he often settles for the outside jump shot (which is not his strongest suit) instead of using his size and strength down low.

At the end of the day, a win is a win.  The reality though is that the Pistons are not likely going to be competing for a playoff seed. They won 27 games last year, and they are not materially better this year.  They played to their strengths and almost won, but the Thunder allowed themselves to play into that style of match up and allowed it to happen.

Next up is the Utah Jazz at home on Halloween.  The Jazz commitment to Sloan’s structured coaching will be a good early season test for the Thunder.

Game 1: Opening Night with the Bulls

Final Score: Thunder 106, Bulls 95

Stat Winners:

Scoring: Durant with 30

Rebounds: Westbrook with 10

Assists: Westbrook with 9

One of the interesting things that I have found surprisingly challenging is how to give a post-mortem on a game, regardless of win or loss.  Do I choose straight reporting? Do I add colorful commentary?  Am I the play by play guy, the color commentator, or the oft-irrelevant sideline reporter? Not such a bad thing, by the way (It kept Ahmad Rashad employed for a solid decade chasing Jordan around Chicago stadium).

Since this will be a learning process for me as I go, both in style as well as in substance since I’m such a newcomer to the Thunderous Oklahoma pro basketball scene, it will likely evolve over time.  Gosh, I hope it does, because so far I’m kind of sucking at this.

Anyway, the game.   We sometimes use the maxim “A tale of two halves” to describe how halftime coaching adjustments can completely reverse a team’s momentum, positive or negative.  Last night’s game on an incremental basis was statistically even through three quarters, tied at 82.  Neither team was playing particularly well.  Durant, shooting only 9-24 for the game, frequently rushed pull-up jumpers.  On the other side of the ball, Derek Rose kept defaulting to the weakest element of his game, the outside shot.  As a result, even though the game was contested, there was up to the 4th no discernible flow.  And that key word, “flow,” is what really defines basketball, isn’t it?

Anyway, this game had none.  And nothing so epitomized it as seeing their leader Durant writhing in pain, grabbing his back, after he was called for a charge in the closing seconds of the 3rd.

So to recap, the Thunder had no rhythm, and Durant hurt his back.  This probably was not the way they foresaw their season beginning.  Luckily for us all, Durant is only 22 and my my, what a great thing youth can be.  And lucky for them, they still had the 4th to play, because that was when their team finally found some purpose.  Passes became crisper, players became more patient, and defensive sets led to rebounds and steals.   With 2:30 left to go, Durant led a 3 on 2 fast break, ending with a Westbrook slam and a +1.  By the time Jeff Green’s 3 from the right corner found the bottom of the net, the game was effectively over.

The other note worth considering is the job that the team did on Rose.  Through 3 quarters, I would have said that it seemed like they were doing a very poor job in keeping him out of the paint; Rose seemed to be able to get to the front of the rim at will.  However, I was startled by his end of game statistics – he scored 28, but on 12-31 shooting.  Given that Rose is their point guard, that shooting statistic is a clear giveaway as to the Bulls’ ultimate futility.  What I can’t yet decide is whether the Thunder’s defense wanted him to take that approach and he just missed badly most of the night, or if he was being impatient and took far too many shots, many of them contested.

So until Friday in Detroit, when we get to behold Rip Hamilton’s fabulous new Amish beard, get some ice for Durant’s back and rest easy.  We’ve got 81 more regular season games to go.