OKC Thunder's Strengths and Weaknesses in Playoffs so Far

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OKC Thunder's Strengths and Weaknesses in Playoffs so Far
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's a best-of-three series, now.

As the Oklahoma City Thunder head home trying to take a 3-2 series lead against the Los Angeles Clippers, trying to remove the stinging taste in their mouths after an all-time collapse in Game 4, we've got a large enough sample size to assess OKC's playoff strengths and weaknesses.

82 regular-season games. 11 more in the postseason. That's a pretty good group.

Now, it's time to look at what the Thunder have feasted on in their wins and what's plagued them in losses. Let's start with the good...

 

Strenght: Crash Those Boards, Russ

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Does the NBA have a better rebounding point guard than Russell Westbrook? Are there any who are more fun to watch sky for a board over three bigs than Russ? With apologies to Eric Bledsoe and Rajon Rondo, probably not. 

Westbrook pulled down 10.5 percent of available rebounds during the regular season. That was the best among point guards. It was better than 16 qualifying power forwards. It tied him with Paul George, which would've placed him in the top 20 among the NBA's qualifying small forwards.

In the playoffs, Westbrook's been even better, upping his rebound rate by more than two percentage points. Heck, he's grabbing boards more efficiently than noted rebounders like Zach Randolph, LeBron James, Shawn Marion and Blake Griffin.

Basically, Russell Westbrook is good at rebounding. And it's fun. Boisterously enjoyable.

There have been multiple occasions when Westbrook has leaped for a board in this Clippers series and has gotten high enough to grab it away from DeAndre Jordan, the league's leading rebounder.

Russ is averaging 8.7 rebounds per game in the postseason. Since 1946, only four other point guards have done that while playing as many playoffs games: Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson (twice), Jason Kidd and Rondo. That's it.

Oklahoma City was 6-0 when Westbrook pulled down double-digit rebounding totals this year. So far, he's already done that five times in the playoffs.

The Thunder point guard's rebounding hasn't just been great. It's been historically superb. And it's phenomenally fun to watch.

 

Strength: He'll Size You up

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

We're sticking with Westbrook, who has been too good to ignore. That's right, Russ: You're getting two bullet points, here.

On the way to averaging 26.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the playoffs, which only Robertson has done before (and he did it three times, by the by!!), he's figured out some more nuance to his game. Mainly, Russ has taken advantage of double teams better than he has in the past.

At times throughout the Clippers series, Chris Paul has found himself in foul trouble. Westbrook is always in attack mode, but when Paul exits to the bench, he busts out a new mindset. Of course, he's still aggressive—he wouldn't be Russell Westbrook if he weren't—but he uses his size as an advantage instead of his quickness. 

Westbrook can out-bulk Darren Collison any day of the week. So, when Collison has to guard Russ, the Thunder point guard starts posting up.

Clearly, that's not the most efficient game, even if Westbrook can back Collison down with ease. But if there's one thing poor back-to-the-basket players have indirectly taught us, it's that drawing double-teams in the post can change ball movement, and that's an aspect with which the Thunder offense tends to struggle (more on this in a bit). 

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Westbrook has done an admirable job passing out of double-teams and has been able to find shooters or get some hockey assists out of those sets.

They're not brilliant. They're not revolutionary. But they're working, and Russ' passing out of the double-team may have sneakily become a more important wild card for his squad at the end of Game 4.

Most of the postseason, the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies have been sliding under screens against Westbrook. But during that 16-point comeback at the end of Game 4, LA started to blitz the pick-and-roll.

If the Clippers guards are trapping Russ when he dribbles around screens, the ability to find open guys on the perimeter is going to become even more important in the coming games. And considering this series is anyone's right now, that's something to watch for as Games 5, 6 and maybe 7 play out.

 

Strength: Corner-Three Flare Screens

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Thunder were one of the worst teams from the corners this regular season. OKC shot just 35.1 percent (registration required) on corner threes (28th in the NBA) and finished in the middle of the league in attempts. In the postseason, the struggles are still there: The Thunder are shooting just 34.4 percent from the corners.

So, instead of stepping up its shot-making, OKC has had its bigs set some hard flare screens on closeout defenders. The Thunder have now pulled this in back-to-back games. Cue: Kendrick Perkins...

Courtesy of NBA.com

And Serge Ibaka...

Courtesy of NBA.com

Some Ibaka screens are treading into Garnett Land. But if there's anything the pride of the 2008 Boston Celtics has taught us, it's that sometimes, the best picks are the illegal ones which don't get called.

Strong screens are underratedly important for increasing team shooting percentage. Getting open is as essential as being accurate. This has worked twice now, so we may see it again.

Now, if only the OKC shooters could knock down some of these shots.

 

Strength: Crunch-Time Small Ball

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Scott Brooks has experimented with a Westbrook-Jackson-Butler-Durant-Ibaka lineup throughout the postseason, and so far, it's worked like a charm. Actually, it's one of Oklahoma City's best lineups.

After playing together for a mere 39 minutes in the regular season, those five guys have outscored opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. And all of a sudden, this is the Thunder's second-most used lineup in the postseason. 

After Sunday's Game 4 collapse, should the Thunder continue to implement small ball?

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Scott Brooks is actually playing small ball, realizing that closing games with Perkins and Derek Fisher doesn't always make sense. And in Games 3 and 4, he put out a small-ball lineup for crunch time.

This isn't a willingness we've seen from Brooks  on a consistent basis in the past. Granted, the Thunder coach also has a history of making mid-series adjustments a little too late, only to revert back to his previous strategies in following series.

At least for now, Brooks is going small in crunch time, and it should work. Emphasis on "should."

Oklahoma City closed with this lineup in Game 4, and it didn't go well. Not at all. It's the one that helped the Clippers furiously put up 38 fourth-quarter points en route to a 101-99 win. And that's how we get to the Thunder's weakness. 

Sure, the Thunder have overall problems on defense: defending the perimeter, limiting threes and consistent effort for on-ball D. But let's just concentrate on one standout issue: Against better defensive teams than the Clippers, OKC may not be able to score as efficiently as it may like.

 

Weakness: Just Move the Ball

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

And finally comes the Thunder's biggest weakness, exemplified best by their crunch-time offense against the Clippers in Game 4. Basically, Oklahoma City doesn't move the ball, an issue which just so happened show with its small-ball lineup, but has appeared consistently throughout loads of crunch-time lineups this year.

The Clippers' fourth-quarter defense was intelligent and effective, no question. Paul's guarding of Durant was superb off the ball, and once KD actually got control of the rock, Los Angeles was quick to double and get it out of his hands. That's how Durant turned it over three times in the fourth quarter. 

It would make sense to double the best offensive player on the floor, especially when he's being guarded by someone almost a foot shorter than him. But still, the Clippers were notably aggressive in anticipating when Durant would receive the ball. Look at how instantly Blake Griffin heads over to Durant upon this entry pass, a double-team which would force an eventual turnover:

Throughout the series, the Clippers have been sporadically slow to cover the corner. Here though, with the ball in the hands of one of the best cross-court passers in the league, they actually make it a point to deny the corner three with Granger fronting Ibaka and Crawford sliding into the top of the paint.

But the Thunder allow this to happen.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Reggie Jackson could cut into the lane and pull Crawford with him. Caron Butler could follow him to the top of the key and find himself wide open for a three or a drive. If anyone in blue actually moved, the Thunder could've had a pretty decent chance to score.

But that's the problem. Guys aren't moving, even when the situation dictates they have to get going. 

At some point, this has to be intuitive. It has to be instinct. Brooks should have instilled this into the minds of his players long ago, but it's never been a priority. The Thunder have always run this stagnant offense.

That's why you constantly hear that the Thunder offense rarely sets itself up to have second options. On this play, and on so many similar fourth-quarter ones that they ran back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back...Ok, I'll stop...for Durant on the right elbow, it was KD in the post or nothing.

Durant had to back down Paul from 18 feet. But why? 

At the end of Game 3, with the Thunder leading the Clippers by four, Durant received the ball at that same right elbow after getting Paul to switch onto him in a pick-and-roll. He posted up CP3 at about 20 feet, turned around and fired up a seemingly impossible shot. Somehow, someway, the ball swished through the net.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Sometimes, that's just what great players do. They make great shots.

But it was the perfect microcosm for the problems with the Thunder process, and it stood as the ultimate example of why we should judge said process over results. 

Durant made the shot, but that wasn't because it was a good look. If you're the Clippers, a contested, mid-range, fadeaway jumper is the first shot you want KD taking if he gets the switch onto your point guard. Yet, Durant went to it, and he made it anyway.

That's not going to happen all the time, and even though KD shot 4-of-5 in the fourth quarter, the five Thunder turnovers and 88.6 offensive efficiency in the final period were symptomatic of OKC's greater issues. The "system" isn't a system at all.

When the Thunder are making just one pass and expecting to score off that, the Clippers have realized how to take advantage of it. And even if Oklahoma City wins this series, others teams will catch on, too.

 

All statistics current as of May 13 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

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.

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