Thunder’s Flexible Lineups, Rotations Key Heading into Kings Clash

In the final weeks of the regular season, NBA teams jockey for playoff positioning and others desperately scratch and claw to grab that final seed in the Eastern and Western conferences. Heading into the playoffs, every team is constantly adjusting and tweaking its lineups, rotations or personnel groupings to generate the best possible matchups. For the Thunder, the flexibility with which Head Coach Scott Brooks can arrange his players on the floor will be advantageous come the start of round one in just over a week.

Regardless of which team the Thunder draws in the opening series of the playoffs and the lineups that team employs, the Thunder must have answers. By being able to go with guard-heavy groups or a set of five players that uses its length and height to make an impact, Brooks can combat other team’s attempts to gain the upper hand. One example of such a lineup that the Thunder has at its disposal is a quick, tough, three-guard approach in the second unit, which features Derek Fisher, Daequan Cook and James Harden. Brooks believes that group provides two major dynamics.

“Offensive ball movement and defensive toughness,” Brooks said. “What Derek brings is toughness. He brings smarts, he just knows how to play. James is a really good facilitator. DC, his shot hasn’t fallen the past few games, but he’s a guy that can knock shots down from a high clip from three point range.”

Playing both actual and intellectual defense against opponents’ lineups is crucial, and a factor that has led to Brooks turning a 23-win squad in 2008-2009 into a team that is currently one of the top teams in the NBA. However, the aspect that can make this Thunder team special is its ability to go on the offensive, not only with its sets and ability to attack the basket, but with its own aggressive lineup changes, like moving All-Star small forward Kevin Durant to the power forward spot to give the Thunder a quick, long, athletic squad on the court.

“For the most part (Durant) can guard fours in this league,” Brooks said. “Offensively, he’s a nightmare for fours. It puts their team in a tough dilemma because they have to either put a four on Kevin or a small on Kevin, then put the four-man on our smaller player. I like when we do that because it creates a lot of ball movement and the floor is spaced.”

Tonight in Sacramento against the Kings, who the Thunder defeated at Chesapeake Energy Arena exactly a week ago and will face again back in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Brooks’ crew must continue to work on its substitution patterns, lineup cohesion and flexibility. In addition, the Thunder must account for a Kings team that is playing with a positive attitude and has incorporated a new weapon into the fold as of late. The final pick in last summer’s NBA draft, Isaiah Thomas has been a revelation at the point guard position for the Kings.

“(Thomas) plays with a very high confidence level,” Brooks said. “He gets into the paint, he scores around the basket. You don’t think that he can get it off but he does that. He shoots threes well and he’s a pest on defense. I think he has a bright future the way he plays and with this team, he’s really helped them.”

Thomas’ implementation in the lineup has allowed highly athletic guard Tyreke Evans to play his more natural combo guard position, and it has also helped the Kings attack the basket with more options. With Evans and Thomas driving and either scoring or dropping it off to big men DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson, the Kings have scored the third most points in the paint in the NBA, only behind the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. Tonight, it will be up to big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to put the clamps on down low, in addition to perimeter defenders like Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha to keep their opponents out of the lane.

“They’re a big paint team, Cousins is a force down there,” Brooks said. “We did a good job of forcing him out away from the basket and Serge came around and always was either blocking or altering his shots, and we have to do that tonight. We can’t get beat off the dribble. Evans is a guy that can do that, Cousins gets into the paint and the guard Thomas does the same thing. We have to make sure that we are tough, sound defensively and not allow them to get easy points in the paint.”