Dirk Nowitzki is a nightmare matchup for the Thunder.
That much we know.
But the biggest threat the Mavericks forward poses in this opening round series might not be his scoring ability. It just might be his mere presence eliminating the Thunder’s best defensive strength — Serge Ibaka’s shot-blocking.
Ibaka will get the start defensively on Dirk. That means Ibaka must spend his time shadowing Nowitzki along the perimeter rather than patrolling the paint. As a result, the Thunder naturally will become susceptible to allowing paint points, as Ibaka no longer will be allowed to roam and reject shots in help defense.
Ibaka, of course, led the league in blocks at 3.65 per game. His 241 total swats were more than 100 more than any other player. He can be a game-changer with his rim protection, and has garnered recognition as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate because of his shot-blocking.
But against the Mavericks, Ibaka could be in great risk of having a reduced effect on the series. His man defense is suspect, his discipline on pump fakes is sub par and his propensity to pick up fouls is sizable.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks will have to game plan for this.
There are three ways Brooks can adapt.
1) Cross-matchup. The Thunder can play Kendrick Perkins on Dirk, which would allow Ibaka to cover Brendan Haywood. But, as stated above, Brooks already has said Ibaka will get start on Dirk so this scheme can only be employed during various stages of the game, not throughout. And it is likely to only work in spurts. With the defensive-minded Haywood being a non-threat offensively, Perk’s low-post defensive skills won’t be needed nearly as much in this series. But there is no way Perk will be able to keep up with Dirk for an entire game. If you remember, though, Perkins first proved he was much healthier when he accepted and excelled against the challenge of guarding Nowitzki late in the Thunder’s two-point win over the Mavs back in late December. At times, Brooks will have to assign Perkins to Nowitzki to get a more favorable man-to-man matchup and to allow Ibaka to sit back and clean up any mess the Thunder makes out front.
2) Sit Perk. It hasn’t been the most desired strategy by Brooks over the past year. But it may be unavoidable if the Thunder wants to throw its most effective defense at Dallas. By sitting Perk, the Thunder can deploy Ibaka and Nick Collison, with Collison covering Dirk and Ibaka assigned to Brendan Haywood or backup big Brandan Wright or Ian Mahinmi. Nobody played Dirk as well as Collison did in the postseason last year. According to NBA.com/stats, Dirk poured in 32.1 points on 60 percent shooting per 36 minutes while Collison was on the bench but scored just 25.5 points on 53 percent shooting with Collison on the floor. Most impressively, Dirk also shot 7.2 fewer free throws per 36 minutes with Collison on the floor, saw his assists totals slashed from 2.7 to 2.0 and suffered a colossal drop off in plus-minus, going from plus-11.6 with Collison on the bench to minus-2.0 with him on the floor. The numbers are just as jaw-dropping in favor of Collison this season. It’s a strategy that should, and likely will, be employed much earlier in games this year after seeing how effective it was last year an in the regular season this season. Rather than Collison coming off the bench at the four-minute mark, look for Brooks at times to summon Collison closer to the six-minute mark.
3) Adjust. Brooks can simply alter his team’s defensive principles. As long as Ibaka needs to cover Dirk, the Thunder will have to rely on Perk and Kevin Durant to be the last line of defense. Again, with Perk will be guarding Haywood so he’ll be right in his comfort zone and won’t have too much to worry about out of Haywood offensively. The risky part is utlizing Durant to help clog up the paint. KD will have to sag off the versatile Shawn Marion, a game plan that can and perhaps will allow Marion tons of open looks. But Marion is just a 30 percent 3-point shooter this season and connected on an atrocious 26 percent of his corner 3s this year. It’s a risk the Thunder can live with taking. The benefit is having Durant and Perk, two players who posses great length and are adequate shot-blockers, there to man the middle. It might not look pretty at times if Marion is making his shots. But trust us, it’s the lesser of two evils. Because you’d much rather force Marion to make you pay while maintaining paint protection as opposed to losing your interior defense and allowing Dirk to go off.