Missed Opportunities by OKC Thunder in Western Conference Finals

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2014

It's done. Say goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After a heartbreaking overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals ended the Thunder's season, the questions start to enter everyone's head. You know them. The what-ifs.

What if OKC had taken advantage of the Tony Parker injury? What if the Thunder actually had some bench help? What if Scott Brooks' substitution patterns had been different?

As the great philosopher Tony Allen said after the Memphis Grizzliesfirst-round loss to the Thunder, "If ifs were fifths, we'd all be drunk."

But you know what? We're harping on the ifs. Because why the heck not? After all, even after a great season, the Thunder could still stand to learn from their mistakes.


The Parker Injury

You'd think Parker leaving Game 6 with a right ankle injury would've ended the series for San Antonio. 

I mean, we're talking about the Spurs' most important offensive player exiting at halftime with his team already down seven. There wasn't any reason to believe San Antonio could come back.

But then, the Spurs did Spurs things.

A Parker-less San Antonio squad outscored the Thunder 37-20 in the third period (account required) of Game 6. With Parker out of the game, the Spurs ducked away just a bit from their ball-screen offense and started playing hot potato around the perimeter.

Patty Mills may be a top-five backup point guard, but he scored zero points and had only one assist after the Parker injury. Cory Joseph scored just once. Manu Ginobili shot 3-of-11 in the second half and overtime.

Even Boris Diaw, who everyone forgets was once a point guard back when the Atlanta Hawks drafted him, had no assists during his Kobe Bryant transformation. (Sixteen points on 6-of-7 shooting in the second half and overtime wasn't too bad, though.)

The Spurs, though, still shot 7-of-17 from three after Parker went down. When the Thunder were late to move on the defensive end, San Antonio took advantage. Just look at exactly how precise the ball movement is on this picture-perfect play to get a two-for-one at the end of the third quarter:

After Steven Adams comes up to defend the ball screen, he is a little late recovering onto Tim Duncan. That means Serge Ibaka has to slide over to protect the rim. The Spurs immediately realize this, and Duncan kicks to a wide-open Diaw in the corner.

Blaming the Thunder for plays like this, though, is nitpicking at its finest.

Credit Mills for the hockey assist. Adams cut off Ginobili's passing lane to Duncan, but this is why the Spurs are somewhat telepathic. Manu and Mills are clearly thinking the same thing: How can we get this 4-on-3 while Adams is above the three-point line?

A defense that likes to gamble and doesn't always defend the three effectively is going to be susceptible to these types of plays. But let's face it: That was simply genius execution from San Antonio. This is more about the Spurs than it is about the Thunder.

When a future Hall of Fame point guard like Parker goes down, it's pretty nice to be able to hand the ball off to Ginobili, another guy bound for Springfield. And when some of the Thunder's rotations became just a bit sloppy, that's when OKC let Manu and the rest of the Spurs carve them up.

Still, on the most basic level, when the Spurs lose Parker, the Thunder have to find a way to take advantage, especially when they already have the lead at home. 


Open Shots

It was a problem for the Thunder all season. OKC doesn't knock down as many open shots as it should.

In terms of having scorers on the roster, the Thunder weren't particularly deep this year. Kevin DurantRussell Westbrook, Ibaka and Reggie Jackson were all capable, and then there wasn't much after that.

Of those top four, only Ibaka was someone who consistently took open looks, when he would get those catch-and-shoot opportunities from 16 feet and beyond. For Durant, Westbrook and Jackson, open shots had a different definition.

Those guys mainly created off the dribble, which is less a critique of the Thunder offense than it is the way basketball works. You want the ball in the hands of your best scorers whenever you can get it there. But for an offense to flow, the role players around those scorers need to convert on the easy opportunities.

The Thunder didn't really do that enough this year, and it showed against San Antonio, sometimes far too often.

The possible turning point of this series came during Game 5 with the set tied at two games a piece. The Thunder got wrecked in that contest 117-89, and a large part of that had to do with their inability to drain the attempts they should've been making.

Thunder Uncontested Shots vs. Spurs
Game 1153148.4%
Game 2112740.7%
Game 3193357.6%
Game 4132748.1%
Game 593426.5%
Game 6153641.7%

NBA.com describes uncontested field-goal attempts as "the number of field goals attempted when the shooter does not have a defender within his vicinity (4 feet)."

In Game 5, OKC sunk just 9-of-34 uncontested shots, good for a dreadful 26.5 percent. Conversely, San Antonio hit 45.5 percent of its uncontested attempts that night.

In a way, that was the story of the series. When the Thunder hit their open shots, they usually won. When they didn't, they lost. And it all comes down to one real problem: Outside of the top-four guys, the Thunder don't really have anyone who can hit the bottom of the net.


The Trade Deadline

Is it possible we give Sam Presti too much credit? Who did the Thunder have beyond their top four in Game 6?

Five Thunder players scored in that contest: Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Jackson and Derek Fisher. And Fisher had just five points in 32 minutes.

It's not that Presti isn't a good general manager. He's clearly a qualified drafter, proven best with the Jackson, Ibaka and Adams selections. But what exactly has Presti done outside the draft?

We keep going back to the James Harden deal, but the Thunder don't necessarily need Harden to win a championship. What they need are consistent role players.

There's a reason OKC went 32-4 when Jackson scored 14-plus points this year: He was their only source of scoring off the bench. He was their everything.

So, when Jackson scored, the Thunder bench did, too. And when the Thunder bench produced, OKC almost always won, because no other team (save for maybe the Miami Heat) can match the Thunder's top three.

We knock Scott Brooks for his minutes distribution (and rightly so), but this isn't all on him.

When you call for Fisher to get fewer minutes, someone has to take those back. And who's it going to be? The inexperienced Jeremy Lamb? Thabo Sefolosha, who couldn't score at all in this series? 

The midseason Caron Butler signing helped, but not much. And there were no other moves. No other attempts to bring in a shooter who would take and make intelligent, practical jumpers.

This team could use a little bit of restructuring, but the onus doesn't just fall on the players, themselves. In some ways, the organization failed them.



The Spurs were the perfect team to exploit the Thunder's lack of preparation, because frankly, no one does it like San Antonio. When OKC's first options failed, they had nowhere else to go. But the Spurs, they're always prepared.

One of the reasons we see San Antonio find so much success every single postseason is because of the way Gregg Popovich handles his players during the regular season.

There's a reason Diaw was so ready to take over when the Spurs called his number in this series: San Antonio made sure to run the offense through him sporadically throughout the year. This wasn't new to Diaw.

So, as Pop realized that the Duncan-Tiago Splitter frontcourt wasn't working against the Thunder when Ibaka was on the floor, he mixed things up. He tried starting Matt Bonner in Game 5. Then, in the second half, he called on Diaw and didn't look back for the rest of the series.

Diaw finished with 26 points (and only two assists, even though his passing was essential to so many Spurs possessions) off the bench in Game 6. And everything he did was comfortable. The only difference was that the Spurs leaned on him a little more.

But when Sefolosha didn't produce, what Lamb had to do was new. At least, it was new for the past two months.

Some of these Lamb lineups Brooks threw out there weren't experimented with in the regular season. Instead, the Thunder had to jump to the desperation game once they realized they had to find a new way to get some scoring on the floor. 

Lamb averaged just 13.9 minutes per game after the All-Star break. He got four DNPs in the Thunder's final 12 games. As the season went on, he lost all ability to garner any important minutes.

When the Thunder called on him to play just under 17 minutes a night from Games 2 through 5 against San Antonio, he wasn't ready to provide offense. He hadn't been playing with that group for the entire second half of the season.

The Spurs' philosophy says the regular season doesn't matter all that much. They use the first 82 games of the year to get themselves as ready as possible for the playoffs.

That means staying fresh, getting rest, experimenting with every lineup combination possible and teaching roles in a way that makes knowledge become instinct. Any guaranteed playoff team and title contender should be adopting this strategy. But in most ways, the Thunder haven't done that.

Maybe Brooks deserves some criticism for the lack of preparation the bench players seemed to have against the Spurs but, really, this is a flaw with the organizational philosophy.

When Brooks has to play Fisher for 32 minutes in an elimination game, yes, that says something strange about his lineup preferences.

It also tells us exactly how little trust he has in his other guys. Some of that could be chalked up to a roster that had its flaws, but you have to consider the manipulation of the group, as well.

If a coach doesn't trust most of his players, then shouldn't his job be to give those guys opportunities to earn his faith back? Isn't that what the great coaches do?

Unfortunately, some of the Thunder bench players were too buried in their warm-ups all season to understand their expanded roles. A switch to a more Spurs-like mentality wouldn't hurt the Thunder moving into next year.

After all, it did work well enough to get San Antonio to its second straight NBA Finals.


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, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All statistics current as of June 2 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.


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