Thunder's Attention to Detail Showcased in Round 1
From defensive positioning to spacing on the floor, an NBA Playoff game can be decided by one false step or one missed assignment.
Thunder forward Nick Collison keyed in on it at the beginning of the season, and when veteran guard Derek Fisher joined the team in March, he emphasized it, too. Throughout the season, the Thunder honed in on attention to detail and how in a game of inches like NBA basketball, those details can be the difference between winning and losing.
In its first-round series victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the Thunder used that dedication to doing the little things right to find success. The maturation of this young team to recognize the importance of those details is something that has been growing since the organization arrived in Oklahoma City four seasons ago.
“We all know this is a process,” forward Kevin Durant said. “Coming into this league I kind of figured that out early on. ... Since day one since I got here, it’s just about building and growing and getting better every single day. And I think that’s what we’ve done. We’re never satisfied, we just have to keep pushing.”
In each game of the series against the Mavericks, the Thunder used key team concepts to execute four smaller, less transparent aspects of the game. That execution fit in with the framework the Thunder has set for its ideal possession: a forceful defensive sequence, a strong rebound, proper floor spacing and sharing the basketball.
Russell Westbrook’s off-the-ball defense
Mavericks guard Jason Terry has taken 13.3 shots per game in his career, and averaged 15.1 points on 43 percent shooting this season, but in the final three games of the series, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook took over a large part of the defensive responsibilities against Terry. In those three games, Terry shot only 35 percent, taking 11.3 shots per game and averaging 11.7 points per game. Most of that can decrease in effectiveness can be attributed to Westbrook’s off-the-ball defense, which prevented Terry from getting the ball in places on the floor where he could be most successful.
“Russell was phenomenal for us, people probably won’t talk about his defensive effort in the fourth,” Durant said. “Russ’ defense was the reason we got the lead and kept the lead.”
Staying down on pump fakes
Dirk Nowitzki averaged 26.8 points per game during the four game series, but the Thunder made the savvy veteran forward work for his buckets, forcing him to take 19.3 shots per game to get those points. Players like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison held Nowitzki to 44 percent shooting for the series, including only 17 percent shooting from three-point land. The 13-year pro is a 48 percent career shooter, including 38 percent for his career, so the Thunder defenders did a nice job of forcing him to difficult spots. The most important aspect of how the Thunder defended Nowitzki was the way players like Ibaka stood tall against multiple pump fakes and pivots. By staying on the floor instead of jumping, the Thunder defenders used their length and discipline to force the Mavericks into difficult shots.
Running to the corner
Once the Thunder boxed out and pulled in defensive rebounds, it began to push tempo and space the floor. Dead-eye three-point shooters like Daequan Cook, Derek Fisher and Durant made sure to run to the corners of the floor on offense in order to stretch the Mavericks’ defense as far as possible to get clean looks. For the series, the Thunder shot 38.1 percent from three-point range, making 21 three-pointers in the final two games in Dallas combined. When the Thunder spread the floor and started possessions with players like Cook and Fisher running to the corner, it was easier for playmakers like Westbrook, Durant and Harden to find space in the lane and to drive and kick. In the decisive game four, the Thunder hit three three-pointers, all of which were assisted by James Harden off of drives.
“He’s a great spot up guy,” Brooks said of Cook. “He’s a great spacer of the floor. He always runs to the corner… (Cook) and Fisher, they get there… (Cook) gets to the corner and he makes shots from the corner. He’s a 40 percent shooter from that corner.”
Making the extra pass
The Thunder finished with 18 and 22 assists in its final two wins against the Mavericks in Dallas, high numbers for the Playoffs when the tempo slows down, more points come from the free throw line and defensive pressure heightens. Whether it was Kendrick Perkins dumping off big-to-big passes to Serge Ibaka or swinging the ball after pick-and-rolls led by Russell Westbrook or James Harden, the Thunder seemed to always make an extra pass in order to get an easier shot. In particular, that offensive execution resulted in eight extremely high percentage baskets from within five feet of the rim in the fourth quarter of Game 4.
“Everybody (shared the ball),” Harden said. “From Russell (Westbrook) to Kevin (Durant) to (Derek) Fisher, all our guards, even our bigs made good passes out. It was a great team effort and I’m happy for our guys.”