Thunder Preview: A Non-Linear Series
Everything up to this point has made sense for the Miami HEAT.
If the New York Knicks wanted to try and win a seven-game series running more isolation plays than any team in the last eight, all while LeBron James and Shane Battier fronted Carmelo Anthony on the perimeter, then they were more than welcome to.
Even with Chris Bosh sidelined with an abdominal injury, would the Indiana Pacers be able to keep up with Miamis small-ball lineups, where James was the power-point-forward on offense and Shane Battier defended David West on the other end?
Will Bostons historic defense be enough to make up for a remarkably inefficient offense?
Then Miami won Game 7 against the Celtics, earning a second-consecutive trip to the NBA Finals to face the Oklahoma City Thunder, and all that logic began to transform, one idea after another colliding like blood cells, simple observations folding into themselves one crease after another until your thought process more closely resembled an essay on the final twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey than linear basketball analysis.
And thats perfectly OK. That is why this series will be fun. Its not a straight line, with the HEAT bouncing along a path dodging obstacles they can see coming. It will be labyrinthine in its complexity. Games wont be decided by just the smallest of bounces, but by strange happenings happening at the most inopportune or fortunate, depending on who benefits time. It will be bio-digital jazz, man.
Turns will twist and twists will turn, and most of the things we write today wont be what we write about tomorrow. But themes will persist, and those well try to put down:
Lineups, Both Big and Small
It doesnt matter who starts. It matters who finishes.
Thats the stock response youll get from most NBA players when asking about starting lineups, and for the most part it is true. Not precisely the about finishing, though thats the idea. Its about minutes, and it just happens to make mathematical sense that if you have a player you still want to give starters minutes to, but you arent going to play them to start either half, theyre going to be on the court quite a bit in the fourth quarter in order to maximize their usage. James Harden might not start, but he still runs around throwing figurative roman candles at opponents for 30-plus minutes a night.
But with Chris Bosh, starting might matter a little more. Whereas Harden is a bit more of the traditional spark off the bench, Bosh is not a player that can operate as an individual for long stretches. So much of Miamis offense centers around the ball either going to Bosh first, where he can facilitate from a well-spaced vantage point, or last, when he ensures a reasonably efficient opportunity once the HEAT have exhausted the list of offensive options in a particular set. Bosh being on the floor makes things easier, and by association, makes James and Dwyane Wade better, giving them more incentive to set strong screens and make hard cuts off the ball.
If Bosh is healthy enough to handle his usual minutes still an important if, despite a strong Game 7 performance then expect him to start and try to bolster an offense that hasnt topped 100 points per 100 possessions in first quarters over the past two playoff series.
Far more interesting is the question of who else would start alongside Bosh. Would it be Shane Battier, who has been defending power forwards for the past two series, or would it be Udonis Haslem, the current starting center in a rotation that has recently included Ronny Turiaf and Joel Anthony. And even if Spoelstra starts big, are the majority of Miamis lineups going to be small?
This will be one of the more fascinating coaching tangos to watch because both teams traditionally have started a true four and a five, while each squad has had consistent success with either James or Kevin Durant at power forward. With Bosh back to bolster the defense, dont be surprised if Miami starts and stays small for most of a game, only to finish with a lineup of Wade, James, Battier, Haslem and Bosh down the stretch.
Matching Up and Down
James vs. Durant should excite just about anyone, but one-on-one matchups arent nearly as important as we like to believe. Its not about whether Mario Chalmers can defend Russell Westbrook, its about whether Miami can keep Westbrook from being efficient while also limiting his teammates to low-percentage shots. Matchups are fluid, and within one possession, any player can be defended by one of five opponents.
Youll see plenty of James on Durant, but if Miami plays small, you might see Battier start on Durant while James spends some time on Serge Ibaka. Then, when Harden comes into the game, Battier will slide over to him and James could go back to Durant, or to Westbrook for stretches while Wade defends Harden and Battier defends Durant while Chalmers or Mike Miller marks Thabo Sefolosha or Daequan Cook. Or if . . . well, you see where things get complicated, and also where fervent dedication to help rotations and disciplined ball pressure matters more than if one player can stay in front of the other.
Everyone, to the Corners
Any guesses as to which were the only three playoff teams that were in the top-10 in allowed corner-three attempts during the regular season?
The Denver Nuggets. The Pacers. And the Thunder.
Like the HEAT, Oklahoma City gave up the bulk of its corner threes before the All-Star break. But while Miamis defensive tweaks have sustained throughout the playoffs, the Thunder have been allowing almost seven attempts from the most efficient spot on the floor during the playoffs, including 8.8 per game to the San Antonio Spurs.
Some of that is just the Spurs being the Spurs, but Miami is second only to San Antonio in corner-attempts per game, and even though Shane Battier hasnt been meeting his own expectations from that spot, there figure to be more than a few big situations when games could swing in Miamis favor based on the ball finding the corner. Especially now that Bosh, who hit two huge shots from the corner in Game 7 against Boston, has returned.
The Many Screens of Kevin Durant
Before each of the last two series against the Celtics, Dwyane Wade has fielded question after question about what it is like to chase Ray Allen around screens all day. Well, now its LeBron James turn.
Allen was the only player during the regular season to approach five off-screen possessions per game, but Kevin Durant was close behind at just under four, averaging at least a point scored for each such possession used all throughout the playoffs. Durant benefits from the hard screens of Kendrick Perkins, but its been the two-man game with Westbrook that has given Oklahoma City its most dynamic late-game looks.
Why did it work so well against San Antonio?
"The Spurs, they had some matchup issues," Battier said. "Athletically, they just didnt have the speed and the quickness to stay with those guys. It seemed like they were always catching up to Westbrook and Durant, so they were always at a disadvantage. You give those guys an advantage, youre in trouble."
If you play the screen honestly, its very tough to prevent Durant from getting an open mid-range jumper and before you talk too much about that not being sustainable, Durant falls into the Garnett/Nowitzki category of being able to sustain that shot if not given enough pressure, and sometimes even if they are. If you cheat, Westbrook can slip the pin-down and run free to the rim. If the closeout on Durant is too hard, he fakes and drives into the lane, where its Westbrooks man that becomes the primary help defender, meaning Durant can drop the ball off to an open teammate.
"The killer is when there is separation, and those guys have space to create," Battier said. "It really imperative that you really stay tight on Durant and Westbrook when theyre setting the pin-downs, and take away space. Thats what we try to create, we try to create space. Thats when were at our best. We cant give those guys the space they need to operate."
"They got two of the best players on the team running action.Westbrook is live, so when he comes down, hes live to cut to the rim," added Wade. "KD is live before [the screen] to cut backdoor to the rim. You got to play multiple things, theres just two guys on the side [defensively] against their two best players, a lot of times you dont have the matchups. You dont want a point guard switching onto Kevin Durant."
Its going to be exhausting work for both James and Battier, and while different coverages will suffice at times, nothing will ever be better than consistently fight over, through and under screens and getting a hand up before the ball begins its trajectory toward the rim.
Of course, if Westbrook is going to be setting screens in the paint, both Chalmers and Wade can do James and Battier a few favors by jostling for premium position. The farther out Westbrook has to set his screen, the farther out Durant has to come off the screen.
The Spaces in Between
This has very little to do with tactics, so this will be a brief entry. Miami will turn the ball over. Missed shots will bounce long and tipped passes will end up in the back court. Those situations hurt any team, but you can up your survivability factor by running back in transition and picking up both the ball and anyone trailing the play.
The HEAT wont win just because they defend fast-breaks as they did during the regular season and in Games 6 and 7 against Boston (with the massive boost of Bosh), but they will lose this series if they defend fast-breaks as they did in Games 2-through-5 against the Celtics.
On the Blocks
You are going to see a great many James-Wade pick-and-rolls in this series. The HEAT used them at the end of their April 4 win at home against the Thunder, getting a huge jumper from Bosh with the defense focused on the primary action, but on the following possession the action got James a mismatch in the post after Westbrook switched on the screen.
This is a hunch more than anything, but some of James finest post work over the past two seasons has come against the Thunder, in part because any of Oklahoma Citys guards that switch on to him are at a fairly significant size disadvantage. If Miami can consistently get to those mismatches using James as a screener if the defense plays the action straight up, hell slip the pick and find space you might see the true break out for James in the post that many have been waiting to see.
Even if the switches dont immediately present themselves, James backing down Durant in the post would be his way of wearing his defender down the way Durant can running James off screens.
Shock and Awe
The single greatest factor working in Miamis favor entering this series is that the Thunder havent played a defense anywhere near as aggressive as the HEATs during the playoffs, which is part of the reason theyve turned the ball over so much less. While the HEAT have played Westbrook similar to Rajon Rondo at times going under screens, giving him a cushion they are also fully equipped to put incredible amounts of pressure on the ball.
In the short term, this might work as a bit of shock and awe, the equivalent of slamming cavalary against a line of infantry in hopes of breaking the ranks. Just as you saw with Miami playing back on its heels in Game 3 against the Celtics, it takes some time to adjust to a defense invading your space at every opportunity, and during that adjustment period there tends to be quite a few turnovers.
But long term, the hope for Miami would be that the Thunders adjustment turns out to be offensive regression. The incredible ball movement from the Western Conference Finals could evaporate with enough pressure, and the more the Thunder revert to simplistic offensive actions isolations and pick-and-rolls the easier they will be to defend.
Nothing will ever be perfect in this series, but thats just fine. What works in one game wont work in another. The shots that werent falling will begin falling again. The narrative will shift from one extreme to another. It wont be pretty, but it will be extraordinarily fun, and we will bask in its imperfections.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.