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June 3, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Efficient Thunder

by Kevin Pelton

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at Oklahoma City 109, San Antonio 103 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 88.9
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 121.8, San Antonio 116.1

In its own right, this was an offensive performance by the Oklahoma City Thunder nearly the equal of the San Antonio Spurs' Game 2 effort. In that game, the Spurs averaged 125.8 points per 100 possessions. Then as now, every one of those points was needed to hold off an effective visiting team. Oklahoma City was even more accurate from the field, shooting an impressive 56.4 percent in a win that evened the series at two games apiece.

It took a while, but the Spurs found a way to counter the Thunder's defensive adjustments. While Tony Parker still couldn't shake loose of Thabo Sefolosha, missing 10 of his 15 shot attempts, San Antonio still put 60 points on the board after halftime. Gregg Popovich cut ineffective backup big men Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter from the rotation, replacing them with a rare DeJuan Blair sighting and extended minutes for the starters. Danny Green played just six minutes after halftime, giving way to more effective wings Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal.

Seven different Spurs scored at least five points in the second half, with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard tossing in 12 points apiece. Yet San Antonio never could close the gap because Oklahoma City matched score for score during the fourth quarter. After relying on role players through the first three quarters, the Thunder turned to Kevin Durant to bring the win home. Durant did so in remarkable fashion, scoring 16 consecutive Oklahoma City points at one stretch and making seven of his nine shot attempts in the fourth quarter.

The Thunder freed Durant with an adjustment that was as effective as it was subtle. Scott Brooks and his coaching staff used Russell Westbrook to set downscreens for Durant, with James Harden handling the basketball and delivering it to Durant. The Spurs struggled to find a solution. When Durant's defender tried to fight through the screen, it gave Durant just enough room to squeeze off a high-percentage catch-and-shoot jumper from the free throw line. Switching meant putting a smaller defender on Durant, making it difficult to contest his shots. Even when San Antonio put Manu Ginobili on Westbrook and switched, he could do little to affect Durant's rhythm. The Spurs finally stopped Durant after six consecutive makes when Jackson was able to maneuver around the screen and force Durant to put the ball on the ground before shooting.

To some extent, Durant's run was simply an incredible bit of shot-making--he's bound for a little of the regression of the mean Ginobili instructed reporters about last week. However, he was getting much better shots than the Oklahoma City offense usually generates in crunch time. San Antonio will surely devote attention to an adjustment, which might mean jumping Durant with both players to deny the pass and relying on help defense to keep Westbrook from coming free in the paint.

That might mean leaving Serge Ibaka open on the perimeter, a strategy the Spurs basically have to employ on pick-and-rolls to contain Westbrook and Harden. Over time, I believe letting Ibaka shoot from midrange is the best way to handle the Thunder's pick-and-roll game. On Saturday night, Ibaka made San Antonio pay with perfect shooting. He made all 11 of his shot attempts, including six from 15-19 feet. Ibaka was the brightest star in a Thunder frontcourt that played about as well as possible, especially in the first half. Kendrick Perkins was atypically aggressive on offense, trying nine shots and making seven of them. Improbably, he scored Oklahoma City's first five points. Nick Collison joined in when he entered the game and scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting. Combined, the three players scored 49 points on just 28 shooting possessions.

The Spurs can count on the Thunder's role players coming back to Earth, especially as the venue shifts to the AT&T Center, but Popovich must also figure out his own rotation. The switch to Blair as a backup big man seems likely to continue. Blair provided energy, and San Antonio was +6 in his 10 minutes of action, a complete swing from the second quarter when the Spurs' second unit was badly outplayed. I suspect we may also see more small lineups from San Antonio.

I'm curious whether Popovich might tighten his rotation a bit as the games get increasingly important. Ginobili played just 25 minutes, in part because he rested for a long stretch of the fourth quarter. The adjustment is to get Ginobili on the floor early in the first and third quarters--possibly even start him in place of Green, though the Spurs will want him on the court when Parker and Duncan rest at the start of the second and fourth periods. Already, Brooks has focused his rotation. He used just eight players, all for at least 16 minutes, after playing a full 10-man rotation during Games 1 and 2.

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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