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May 8, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Gridlocked Offense

by Kevin Pelton

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at Memphis 101, Oklahoma City 93 (OT, Memphis leads 2-1)
Pace: 85.8
Offensive Ratings: Memphis 107.0, Oklahoma City 97.7

The Oklahoma City Thunder has a problem that reared its ugly head during the fourth quarter of Game Three against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Thunder doesn't have a late-game offense. OK, that's not fair, exactly. The Thunder has actually been reasonably successful this season in the clutch by relying on the talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, either individually in isolation situations or in combination when Durant screens for Westbrook and forces the defense to make difficult choices. When teams are able to defend both players, however, Oklahoma City lacks a Plan B. That absence of alternatives caused the Thunder to blow a double-digit lead and suffer a costly loss in Memphis.

First, let's give credit to the Grizzlies, because their defense was responsible for blowing up Oklahoma City's primary offensive options. Tony Allen put on an individual defensive clinic during the fourth quarter and overtime, hounding Durant through every inch of the court and using his strength to prevent Durant from catching the basketball. Even when Durant did gain possession, he was unable to free himself for a good look at the basket. Meanwhile, Lionel Hollins made an excellent switch to put O.J. Mayo on Westbrook. Mayo handled the difficult chore of defending Westbrook 1-on-1 with aplomb.

Here's how the typical Thunder possession went late in the game. Westbrook operated at the top of the key, waiting for Durant to come off a screen. When this did not happen, that left Westbrook isolated with the shot clock running down. Since he couldn't beat Mayo off the dribble, Westbrook was forced to settle for low-percentage jumpers.

Oklahoma City's two stars deserve some of the blame for the way the offense was locked up. Durant needs to improve his strength to be able to beat the denial defense Allen played, and he forced shots when he did get the ball. Westbrook was quick with the trigger midway through the fourth quarter, before the Thunder's offense started putting him in difficult situations, and his turnovers were costly.

That said, Oklahoma City's players need more help from the sidelines. Scott Brooks and his coaching staff were badly outstrategized late in the game. It was quickly evident that what the Thunder was doing wasn't working, yet it wasn't until the 3:40 mark of overtime--nearly seven minutes after Oklahoma City's last field goal--that somebody besides Durant and Westbrook was prominently involved in a play. For the most part, the other players on the court may as well have been blocking sleds, since all they were doing was screening. There were no other options in Brooks' playcalls, even after timeouts.

As it turned out, James Harden was involved in all three of the Thunder's overtime scores (he assisted on one, made a pass that eventually led to a putback on another and made a late three). Yet Harden wasn't even in the game for most of the final 4:24 of regulation, as Brooks inexplicably went with defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha despite his team's crying need for offense and the absence of a go-to Memphis scorer that demanded Sefolosha's ability as a stopper. Putting Mayo on Westbrook meant leaving Mike Conley on the Thunder's shooting guard, and Harden was able to punish Conley in a way Sefolosha could not.

That things went south so quickly in the fourth quarter was a shame because Oklahoma City's gameplan entering Game Three was in fact quite inspired. Extending a process that began in Game Two, the Thunder sank into the paint defensively, daring the Grizzlies to beat multiple defenders inside or shoot from the perimeter. For three quarters, Memphis was unequal to the task. Incredibly, through 36 minutes of basketball, the Grizzlies made just six shots from outside the paint as Serge Ibaka's blocks and swarming defenders made life miserable for post players Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Memphis was able to turn things around early in the fourth quarter by going small, putting three wings alongside agile post Darrell Arthur. The lineup helped get the Grizzlies as close as seven, but it appeared Oklahoma City had held off the charge when back-to-back Durant buckets off Westbrook feeds (the last two of his 12 assists) made it 82-71 with 7:43 to play. The remainder of regulation, the Thunder would score just one more field goal. On the other end, the improved floor spacing carried over even after Hollins went back to his starting frontcourt. An inspired Mayo and Mike Conley provided just enough shooting to keep Oklahoma City honest. By overtime, Memphis was downright unstoppable, scoring on six out of the eight possessions before the Thunder was forced to start fouling.

The real question entering Game Four is which Grizzlies offense we'll see: The crisp one that controlled the game down the stretch or the one that was stuck in mud because of its inability to make an outside shot in the first three quarters? Mayo could help determine that. After starting the second half in place of Sam Young, he may be due for a promotion to the starting lineup. Mayo is the better shooter, and with Allen giving Durant all he can handle, going smaller isn't really an issue.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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