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OKC Thunder's Elite Balance May Save Their NBA Title Hopes

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OKC Thunder's Elite Balance May Save Their NBA Title Hopes
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Most of your balance is controlled in your inner ears. Well, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks better start using his to learn how to balance his offense.

Just listen to the critics, Scotty. 

The Thunder find themselves trailing the Memphis Grizzlies 3-2 in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and so much of that deficit has to fall on the offense. The Thunder attack, which has placed an unusually large burden on both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, has averaged 8.4 points per 100 possessions fewer in the playoffs than it did in the regular season.

At some point, you have to credit the Grizzlies defense. Memphis ranked second in points allowed per possession after Marc Gasol returned from his MCL injury in January, and Tony Allen has been nothing short of superb guarding the likely MVP all series.

Actually, Durant even said after Game 5's 100-99 loss that Allen is affecting him mentally. From ESPN's Brian Windhorst:

"I'm worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot," Durant said. "I've just got to focus in on the rim and my shot. I can't go out there and think too much, I have to let my instincts take over."

To KD's credit, Allen is deserving of that praise. Durant is shooting just 37 percent from the field and 32 percent from three in his past seven playoff games against Memphis dating back to last season.

Still, there is more to Oklahoma City's struggles than Allen's perimeter mastery or Gasol's and Zach Randolph's physicality down low. No, the Thunder just don't look right. Essentially, Durant's symbiotic relationship with Russell Westbrook is gone.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Throughout the regular season, Durant and a healthy Westbrook coexisted willingly and effectively. They fed off each other. Actually, when they were on the floor together, Oklahoma City averaged 110.4 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would be good enough to lead all NBA teams. 

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Against Memphis, that number is down to 101.2, and over the course of this series, the Thunder's two stars have combined to attempt 58 percent of the team's shots, without taking fewer than half of Oklahoma City's shots in any given game. They're throwing everything at the rim, and it's not working, but that's not fully on the players.

Ultimately, this comes down to Brooks, whose unimaginative offense hasn't worked for some time. Now, we're starting to see the effects of its monotony against one of the best defenses in the NBA.

In the regular season, we saw ball movement in Oklahoma City. We saw Serge Ibaka dominating out of the pick-and-pop with either Westbrook or Durant acting as a ball-handler. We saw an offense find ways to have success at the rim. 

Uncredited/Associated Press

Against Memphis, it's the Westbrook show. Or it's Durant theater. And that's it.

No distribution. No facilitating. Nothing. 

What's going on, Scotty?

At this point, the Grizzlies are baiting Westbrook to shoot, and he's biting the worm right off the hook. Memphis is going under screens, denying passing lanes and daring Russ to chuck. And he's falling for it. It's happening every time. 

Westbrook missed 21 of his 31 shot attempts in Game 5, and as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh wrote Wednesday, he is redefining ball-hoggery:

Westbrook pounds the ball more than anybody in the NBA. In the regular season, Westbrook received a HabersTrophy in the ball-hogging category by averaging 7.8 seconds of possession between passes, the highest such rate in the NBA during the regular season.

You thought that was sticky? The ball has been sticking like glue this postseason. Westbrook's NBA-high ball-hogging rate has now crept up in the postseason, and he's shooting 34 percent from the floor and 18 percent from downtown. His average time of possession is by far the highest of any point guard this postseason.

Again, this all falls back on Brooks, whose plays rarely allow for a second option. The Thunder will often run a quick play, realize after five seconds that they don't like what they see, and then start all over with Westbrook or Durant on the perimeter.

Except this time, there's no play. It's just isolation.

So what is there for Oklahoma City to do? Certainly, letting Durant act as a "decoy," like what happened down the stretch of Game 5, isn't the answer.

LM Otero/Associated Press

As good as Reggie Jackson may be, are we supposed to have faith in a coach who puts the ball in his hands over Durant's after playing Mr. OKCtober for just 55 total minutes in the first three games of the series? Where's the consistency? 

After 82 games, Brooks decided Jackson wasn't effective enough to earn heavy minutes against Memphis. Now, after another overtime loss, he's explaining his crunch-time tactics by saying, "We were giving Reggie some opportunities," according to CBSSports.com.

Where were these opportunities for Jackson in the first 85 games, and why weren't you preparing him for these scenarios in less gut-wrenching situations? 

Uncredited/Associated Press

(Side note: Everyone who is so riled up about Durant saying that he's fine with being a decoy late in games needs to chill. What do you expect? KD to call out his coach for poor play-calling in the middle of the playoffs?

Isn't part of the reason we like Durant because he's such a good teammate and calculated personality? Basketball fans need to stop getting angry just for the sake of being mad and start to realize why certain things are happening on the court.

Point your frustration at Brooks, sure. But to knock Durant for failing to be an unnecessarily aggressive human being seems outlandish. OK, cease rant...)

So, what can the Thunder do? What can Brooks do?

He can try running pick-and-rolls particularly high with Westbrook and Ibaka, which could help negate some of what Gasol does close to the basket. He can run more side action, sets at which the Thunder excelled at the start of the season.

Really, he needs to put Westbrook in a situation where he doesn't feel like he has to shoot, because when Russ moves the ball, Durant gets his shots, and that's when Oklahoma City regains the balance that can give it one of the most dangerous offenses in the NBA.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All statistics current as of May 1 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

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