Pros and Cons of OKC Thunder Embracing a Small-Ball Lineup

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Pros and Cons of OKC Thunder Embracing a Small-Ball Lineup
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The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't played small ball often this season. Now, they have to do it.

With Serge Ibaka and his left calf ruled out for the season, Scott Brooks put fewer than two bigs on the floor for 32 minutes in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

A reasonable person could have argued Brooks didn't have much of a choice. Where would the Thunder get scoring against the San Antonio Spurs if Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams were always on the floor? But in dropping Game 1 by a score of 122-105, Oklahoma City got torched on the defensive end.

Ibaka, who has become one of the league's premier defenders, has missed just three regular-season games over the past four seasons. So, Monday night, Brooks had to be more experimental than any coach would like to be in the Western Conference Finals.

If the Thunder protect the paint like they did in Game 1 against the Spurs, the Western Conference Finals could be less competitive than the Anglo-Zanzibar War. It could be shorter than Verne Troyer. It could go on for less time than a Heather Graham ABC sitcom.

Hey, historically, maybe this series will be as obscure as all of those references. That is, as long as the Thunder keep San Antonio away from the rim with as little success as they did Monday evening. Because of that, we may not see Brooks go with small-ball units for two-thirds of any other contest.

Now, after one game of letting the Spurs run it up against them, the Thunder will have to reevaluate exactly how often they should be going small.

 

Scoring

Offense wasn't the problem when the Thunder went small against the Spurs in Game 1. 

Both of the two small-ball units OKC used for seven minutes each on Monday night scored at a respectable rate. The Reggie Jackson-Derek Fisher-Caron Butler-Kevin Durant-Steven Adams lineup averaged 105.1 points per 100 possessions (registration required). The other small-ball lineup (which we'll get to in a couple) put up a 116.3 offensive rating.

Really, the issues with these units came on defense (which we'll also get to in a bit).

The scoring attack was decent, though. They were able to space the floor when Durant played the 4, something that can't really be done when two of Perkins, Collison and Adams play. OKC's small-ball lineups shot 10-of-20 from three in Game 1, up from the 2-of-7 that the starters shot with Perkins and Collison on the court. 

Now, it should be noted that the starters—the one big lineup Brooks used in Game 1—were statistically dreadful Monday night, scoring an anemic 86.4 points per 100 possessions and posting a net rating of minus-18.9. That's what happens when three of your starters (Collison, Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha) combine for five total points with two of them throwing up donuts. 

It's unrealistic to expect offensive production to be that poor for the rest of the series. But still, Oklahoma City shouldn't be expecting much when it plays two defensive-minded bigs at the same time.

Result: Pro

 

Pace

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Go small and you can run the floor. That's a pretty common theme.

It makes sense. Get rid of one of your lumbering bigs, replace him with an athletic wing, and you're able to move up and down the court at a faster pace. That was true for the Thunder over the course of the regular season, as well. 

OKC's most-used small-ball lineup in 2013-14 (Russell Westbrook-Fisher-Jackson-Durant-Ibaka) averaged 103.6 possessions per 48 minutes. Monday, without Ibaka, Brooks played around with that lineup, replacing the NBA's blocks leader with Butler. 

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The group without Ibaka allowed 114.2 points per 100 possessions in seven Game 1 minutes. That may be a small sample but even so, it seems logical that a unit without any center or rim protector would struggle against an attack as disciplined as the Spurs'.

San Antonio slowed the game down, neutralizing an advantage OKC should have from going small, and crushed the Thunder with the pick-and-roll, especially in the fourth quarter when Manu Ginobili had a field day against the Ibaka-less, small-ball Thunder. 

Besides, who said speeding the ball up against San Antonio would be such an advantage, anyway?

Over the years, there isn't a team who gets back in transition like the Spurs. Heck, they popularized the whole "we're not going for offensive rebounds so we can prioritize getting back on D" strategy. 

This year, the Spurs finished eighth in points allowed per transition play, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). They're perennially in the top 10 in that category, and considering the Thunder's current go-to small-ball lineup doesn't have the personnel to generate many steals or blocks, the transition game could be weaker than we may have imagined at the start of the series.

Result: Con

 

Rebounding

Chris Covatta/Getty Images

You'd think going small would mean worse rebounding, but that wasn't always true for the Thunder in the regular season. Oklahoma City has rebounders on the wings who can actually compensate for the lack of size the Thunder throw on the court.

Durant is an above-average rebounder. Jackson grabs boards better than most guards. And Westbrook has proven time and time again over these playoffs that he's the best rebounding point guard in the NBA.

That means OKC can go small and lose some of its edge on the glass, but not necessarily all of it.

In Game 1, the Spurs outrebounded the Thunder, but it wasn't all that dominant of an effort. San Antonio grabbed 51.9 percent of available boards. Ultimately, that wasn't why the Thunder lost the game, and had they been able to get stops, giving up a slight edge in rebounding wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world.

In the end, that's all this comes down to: defense. It's all about preventing the rock from going into the hoop, and against the Spurs, that's something the Thunder couldn't do.

Result: Con, but not by much

 

Defense

Darren Abate/Associated Press

We won't wait until the end to say pro or con, here.

Con. It's a con.

The Spurs bullied their way to 66 points in the paint during the first game of the conference finals, and the absence of Ibaka didn't help. The Serge Protector tends to make all the difference on the defensive end, and OKC's regular-season series against San Antonio, which the Thunder swept, was no exception to that. From Sam Amick of USA TODAY:

The 6-10, 245-pounder dominates the paint, and his presence extends to the perimeter, where the Spurs shot 26.7% from beyond the arc against the Thunder this season. And the huge disparity between the Spurs' scoring in those four games with Ibaka on the floor (93.0 points per 100 possessions) compared to when he was off of it (120.8) is evidence enough that the Thunder are in serious trouble here.

Really, that's the problem. At times, the Thunder can be dominant when they go small, and it's not necessarily something they should get away from for long stretches. But still, it's going to be hard for them defensively. 

Even in that aforementioned most-used small-ball Ibaka lineup from the regular season, the Thunder allowed 106.6 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would rank a team 24th in the NBA if strung out over a full year. 

Oklahoma City found success in that lineup on the offensive end. The unit could run, shoot and Ibaka was dominant enough as a housekeeper that he could clean up his teammates' mistakes enough to keep the D competent. 

Against one of the most finely tuned offenses in the NBA, small ball is going to come down to defense. And Ibaka isn't there anymore to be the maid.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Ginobili got to the rim whenever and however they wanted in Game 1. When OKC went small, that was even easier, and if the Spurs can pull the Thunder's one rebounder away from the rim to defend in the pick-and-roll, that opens up the offense so much more for San Antonio.

All season, plenty did beg for Brooks to go small more than he actually did. We complained about Perkins' playing time and the lack of confidence the Thunder coach had in playing KD at the 4. But this is different, considering Ibaka can't play the 5 in those scenarios anymore.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Now, we're seeing new kinds of strange lineup decisions. Where was Collison, the Thunder's best pick-and-roll defending big, in the fourth quarter when no one could get stops? And if Ibaka is out, why not stagger minutes so that you always have one of Westbrook or KD on the floor? 

Twice in Game 1 we saw Brooks use a lineup that wasn't working defensively (Westbrook-Fisher-Jackson-Butler-Durant), call a timeout and proceed to keep the same unit out there after the break. It's nice to see that Brooks is capable of going small and sticking with it, but it obviously wasn't going to have success in the first contest against San Antonio.

That was the small-ball unit that couldn't contain the Spurs offense, the one that allowed 114.2 points per 100 possessions on 8-of-12 shooting. And Brooks has shown hesitance to make in-series adjustments in the past.

You can go small with one of the NBA's best rim protectors at the 5. But now Ibaka's gone and situations have changed. In this particular series, OKC may not be able to go small all that often. In the end, the cons may outweigh the pros. 

 

All statistics current as of May 20 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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