SAN ANTONIO — Lost in the Scott Brooks-Serge Ibaka storyline from Game 1 is an old problem the Oklahoma City Thunder saw rear its ugly head Sunday night and lead to offensive struggles that were just as significant as the defensive breakdowns.
Kevin Durant couldn’t get open.
Spurs guard Stephen Jackson covered Durant like a blanket, crowding him with pesky physical play that prevented clean catches from point guard Russell Westbrook. As Durant struggled to squirt free, precious seconds continued to tick off the shot clock. By the time Durant finally received passes, he had little time to get a high-percentage shot, the Thunder’s offense had completely bogged down and OKC had become extremely defensible.
This is nothing new, of course. Every defender from Tony Allen to Shane Battier to Ron Artest has employed this method of defense against Durant. Jackson just joined the list.
“People have been crowding me and pushing me off my spot for five years now,” Durant said. “So it’s no different. Stephen Jackson is physical and stronger than me, of course. But I’m going to keep fighting. I’m going to keep going at these people, man. I’m not going to quit.”
Right spirit. Wrong idea.
Durant and the Thunder should quit force-feeding Durant. Every halfcourt set that starts with Durant trying to seal Jackson is a wasted one.
As everyone knows, and Durant has admitted, Jackson is stronger. He’s pushing Durant farther away from his preferred starting point and forcing the Thunder’s star to initiate offense from much farther out. Fortunately for the Thunder in Game 1, Durant was able to use Jackson’s strength against him on a handful of trips. Durant attempted six fourth-quarter free throws, two of them stemming from Durant simply exploiting Jackson’s ultra-aggressiveness with the rip move. But it’s clear that before Durant catches the ball, the refs aren’t going to blow the whistle on all the pushing and pulling, grabbing and grappling. So Durant and the Thunder must adjust, and I’ve got a simple yet potentially effective idea for Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Let Durant bring the ball up the court.
It’s the best way for Durant to initiate the offense without Jackson poking and prodding.
“We’ve done that in the past,” Brooks said. “We’ve talked about it. He did it a few times last game. He did it, actually, three or four plays in a row. It’s something that we will look at. But we have to make sure that we get guys off of him there’s no question. Kevin has to do a better job of setting himself up, and we have to set better screens. We can’t let a guy hang on him and get away with it. He’s a talented player but we need to free him up.”The only downside to putting the ball in Durant’s hands from the start is the potential for fatigue. Turning KD into essentially the point guard could wear him out. But that’s only if the Spurs apply full-court pressure. In that case, Jackson risks running out of gas, too.
Durant even said he sees the advantage in this strategy and provided more detail on how it could help.
“I think I can beat him off the dribble,” Durant said of Jackson. “They got a great defensive team, but I think I can make the right passes. I can get better, but I’ve been making the right passes. But it’s all whatever coach wants me to do. If he wants me to bring it up, I did that a few times last game. If he wants me to run around screens, or sit in the post, or space the floor I’ll do that too.”
Durant is dangerous enough to be deadly in any of those spots. So why waste time fooling around with the one in which he’s clearly not?
“It’s not just that,” Durant said. “We got to get into our offense quicker. We got to race the ball up. We’re walking across the halfcourt line right at 16 and we’re calling the play at 14. By the time I tried to get open and get the ball, we’re at eight, seven. That just means I got to run faster to my spot. The bigs got to run faster and the point guard’s got to run faster up the court to give us some more time.”
Some suggest Durant post up. How? Again, Jackson has the clear strength advantage. If Durant can’t catch it at the elbow, how’s he going to seal Jackson on the block? Then there is the matter of the Spurs’ team defense, which Durant knows is lurking.
“It’s easier said than done,” Durant said. “They’re not going to just let me run down in the post and sit there. No team is going to let you do that. Of course, people from the outside looking in can easily say just run to the post. But that’s exactly where I want to get the ball. But I know where the double team is coming from. I never play one-on-one basketball, in the playoffs or since I’ve been in the league. Nobody is going to just let me sit there and do what I want to do so I’ve got to figure out where to catch it and how I can make a quick move and where I can see my teammates to pass the ball. My coaches do a great job of showing me the film, and I think that me as a player that learns quickly, I can adjust.
“I’m just going to keep playing the way I’ve been playing. Shots I’ve been shooting have felt good. I made some last game. I just got to keep pressing, man. Keep pressing forward and keep playing hard. I think that’s my ticket to another level is playing hard every possession.”
- About that Brooks-Ibaka storyline…After saying Monday that he wishes he played Ibaka more, Brooks backpedaled a bit from those comments and stuck to his guns at his team’s shootaround Tuesday morning. His full response to the matter when asked.
One of the things I said that did not get publicized enough is anytime you play an NBA game you have a lot of decisions to make. And one of the things that I know about the team I coach is we have a lot of good players that can finish games. We have multiple ways to play, and we’ve won a lot of games this year by everybody participating and contributing to the win. Sometimes I don’t play Perk. Sometimes I don’t play Nick. Sometimes I go small. Sometimes I go big. And that’s what makes our team good. That’s what makes their team good. They can play different ways. I don’t second guess what I did. Obviously, when you don’t win you always criticize your own self. But I think the decision I made was solid. We’ve won a lot of games that way. Now does that change tonight? We’ll see how the game goes. Serge is one of our best defenders. Perk is also a pretty good defender. Nick and Kevin, Kevin is a really good defender also. But it’s a matter of how they play and how they earn those minutes. And a lot of times, when they go small, you have to counter that with small.
- The Thunder had four charging fouls in the fourth quarter in Game 1, a number Brooks said was way too many. The Thunder worked on some drive-and-kicks during today’s shoot-around, perhaps as a way of countering the Spurs sliding over looking to take a charge. Said Brooks: “The bottom line is we had four offensive fouls. Whether it’s the right call or not doesn’t mean anything other than we have to do a better job of not getting them. Not a lot of times you’re going to go through an NBA game and have four in one quarter. We’re definitely an aggressive team. We like to attack the basket. But we have to do a better job of making the right play.”
- OKC’s length was clearly a problem for the Spurs in Game 1. The Thunder used it’s length and quickness to get steals in the passing lanes, deflections on drives and in man defense and as a way to consistently contest shots. Said Durant: “That’s what we do. That’s what our team is built on is using our length and using our athleticism. The coaches always emphasize playing with our hands and getting deflections. We chart deflections so it’s been something that’s been a part of us since Day One. Thabo was great, Russell was great, Serge was great and everybody else fell in line. We just got to keep playing with our hands, keep using our length and hopefully it disturbs them.”
- James Harden had a bad game Sunday. There’s no other way around it. He had 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting and scored just 11 of those, on 5-of-15 shooting, when the game was still in question. But Durant said the team’s sixth man will be fine. “Players have games where they didn’t play the way they wanted to play. But James is a guy I know that’s going to keep going. It’s not the end of the road for him. He’s going to keep playing and keep playing hard. There are times when he got to the rim and he just didn’t finish. That happened to us all night.”
- Quotable: “We will bounce back. We will play with great effort. Hopefully we can play a little better.” — Thunder coach Scott Brooks.