The Microscope is your recurring look at the NBA's small-scale developments—the rotational curiosities, skill showcases, coaching decisions, notable performances and changes in approach that make the league go 'round.
Scott Brooks voluntarily goes without
Scott Brooks has apparently taken on one of the more curious (and now corrected) elements of Erik Spoelstra's regular season coaching strategy. Tasked with balancing a rotation around a pair of incredible shot creators and a third star, Brooks has apparently seen it fit to sit both of his top players at the same time for a stretch of game that could hardly register as insubstantial; the lineup of James Harden, Daequan Cook, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, and Derek Fisher played five minutes together in Game 2, enough to make them the Thunder's fourth most-played unit on the night, despite the fact that they were outscored at a rate of 98.3 points per 100 possessions in their time on the floor. Basketball has little equivalent for just how horrendous that deficit is.
Obviously both Durant and Westbrook need rest at some point in the game, but considering how much more capable the Thunder offense is with either one of them on the court, it seems absurd that Brooks would sit both, even with the luxury of having Harden around to initiate the offense. In the case of this particular lineup, the problem isn't that Harden is asked to create, but that when playing with these four specific teammates, he's asked to create everything. OKC's offense generally works well because of the load-sharing between their core triumvirate, and considering that Harden is already staggered with Westbrook and Durant by coming off the bench, how has Brooks not managed to equip his lineups with more offensive potential than this?
Roles reverse as the Thunder target Tiago Splitter
Gregg Popovich's tendency to intentionally foul miserable free throw shooters needs no introduction; we've seen Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace as frequent victims over the years, and most recently, DeAndre Jordan and Reggie Evans were made into liabilities due to their inabilities to produce on gifted free throws. But Brooks and Thunder turned the tables a bit on Pop by repeatedly wrapping up Tiago Splitter in Game 2, capitalizing on the limitations of a career 58.6 percent foul shooter.
As noted by Kenny Smith on TNT's Inside the NBA, the strategy didn't pay off much in terms of total margin. The Thunder only gained a one-point advantage as a result of their possessional manipulation, triggering the usual discussion and disgust over what turned out to be a fairly inconsequential part of the game's result.
That said, Brooks and his club were right to employ this particular strategy, for reasons that go well beyond poetics. Popovich's post-game response when asked about the tactic were priceless, but the reasoning for this particular move is rooted in legitimate strategy, and in games where Splitter is providing the Spurs with any kind of meaningful contribution (as he did and was in Game 2), Brooks should again look to send him to the line as frequently as possible. Popovich clearly didn't feel too threatened by the maneuver, but in different circumstances, he could be compelled to pull Splitter from the game, if not bank on the big man's very shaky ability to convert from the stripe.
Experimental definitions of "depth"
The San Antonio Spurs are unquestionably among the deepest teams in the NBA and are certainly the deepest club remaining in the postseason. But all in all, the Thunder seemingly aren't that far behind. Oklahoma City's roster doesn't hold the same depth in scoring, but few teams can match the sheer number of useful Thunder players.
Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are all wonderful, but Serge Ibaka remains one of the league's most promising interior defenders. Nick Collison could reasonably challenge Omer Asik and Taj Gibson as the best defensive bigs in reserve that the NBA has to offer, and is a screen-setter extraordinaire. Kendrick Perkins has been picked apart in this series, but is a highly useful big in the right matchup and context. Nazr Mohammed is tremendous for a fourth big man. Thabo Sefolosha is an elite perimeter defender, Daequan Cook is an easy, plug-and-play bench option with simple utility, and even Derek Fisher has managed to be useful for this team in stretches.
The Thunder have so many options and so much flexibility, and yet in a series like this one—against an opponent who knows just how to challenge teams limited in shot creation—the Thunder appear painfully shallow. It takes so much work just to get Durant an open look, and yet when Westbrook is essentially forced to over-dribble as a result of the rest of the roster lacking in the capacity to create for themselves, the entire offense stagnates. Oklahoma City's sometimes chaotic system could certainly work with the right pieces in tow, but at the moment this isn't a formula that elevates the offensive play of limited players. This Thunder roster is deep yet, but what's the impact of that depth if it can't be converted into a usable form?
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.