Appreciating Oklahoma City’s offense


Jun 2, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) leads center Kendrick Perkins (5) and forward Kevin Durant (35) up-court in the final minutes of the game against the San Antonio Spurs in game four of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder beat the Spurs 109-103. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

I’ve been one of Oklahoma City’s harshest critics this season. Yes, I realize they scored 109.8 points per 100 possessions, a tick lower than the gaudy San Antonio Spurs offense that I’ve obsessively fawned over for the past six months. Yes, I realize their team is completely different than San Antonio’s in the fact that they don’t need ball movement, precision or timing to terrorize the opposing defense. They could use some more ball movement in their offense, sure — a moving basketball remains more difficult to stop than a stationary ball handler. But they can survive, in fact they have thrived this season, without the vaunted principles that make the Spurs so fun to watch every night.

The are a different animal. Very different. And I guess, I let my fandom and appreciation of the Spurs’ offense cloud my judgement when I watched the Thunder on national television.

The Thunder have an incredible offense but they rely extensively on isolations. 12.9% of their possessions! That’s inefficient.

That was me for the majority of the season and, up until Game 3, I maintained my stance. Any offense cannot possibly sustain their production if they continue to put stress on their best players. That “stress” occurs when they are constantly required to create against an entire defense intently watching their every move. It’s bad basketball in every sense. The advanced statistical community has attributed to my tendency to loathe stagnant, isolation-heavy offenses. It leads to teammates subject to stretches of sitting in the corner or in a similarly forgotten part of the floor, watching their teammates create for themselves instead of the team. Aimless, forgotten, unappreciated, their presence on the floor mandatory rather than necessary.

But, for the Thunder at least, it’s completely irrelevant. They are that good. My rather myopic viewpoint on “correct” basketball — who gave me the right to decide what constitutes “correct” basketball, anyway? — is inherently flawed. At the end of the day, why should it matter how they score their points as long as, you know, they are scoring points consistently? Oklahoma City used up 8,296 possessions this season, a number that is large enough to indicate that, yes, their offense is legitimate. Their offense can sustain the toll they put on Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The beauty of the Thunder offense is not in their unparalleled timing and precision (I still prefer the Spurs’ offensive philosophy, however) but in their ability to succeed in spite of the obvious disadvantages inherent in an offense that doesn’t always utilize their offense in the most efficient manner. But, if their performance in Game 4 means anything, Oklahoma City is more than capable of putting their best players in positions to succeed.

At the tail end of Game 4, they started running an incredibly simplistic set that incorporated Durant, Harden and Westbrook. It was so successful that Scott Brooks called the play seven times in the final six minutes of the game.

Here’s the gist of the play: Each play began with Westbrook bringing the ball up the middle of the floor. Harden was situated on the left side of the court in position to receive Westbrook’s pass. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka — whose incredible shooting night gave the Spurs defense something else to consider — were situated on the left block, away from the action. As Harden received the pass, Westbrook went to set a “brush” screen, a down screen in other words, for Durant, previously situated on the right block. And … that’s about it.

They ran this play seven times because it just … worked. The Spurs may lead you to believe that these diverse sets that the diabolical Gregg Popovich constructs, these sets with multiple options and multiple reads is the only way to play basketball. It’s beautiful, yes. But the only way to succeed? Hardly.

Durant used the brush screen and found space at the top of key, a crevice of space that gave the Thunder’s best scorer limitless space to roam. San Antonio’s help defense was at a disadvantage because of their floor spacing. The Spurs defense switched on occasion which left Tony Parker on Durant without a help defender in sight. They tried fighting over the screen, as Stephen Jackson admirably attempted with 1:32 remaining, but the screen displaced him enough to give Durant space to pull up for a 16-footer. San Antonio also attempted to help, as Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal learned, but Oklahoma City still created two good looks: a mid-range jumper for Durant and a wide-open 3-pointer for Harden, a shot that he missed.

The final straw? As the Thunder continually relied on the exact same play — San Antonio knew what was coming and who it was coming from — they threw a changeup, an adjustment that was similarly simple and similarly devastating. With about 2:50 remaining in the final frame, the Thunder prepared their effective down screen set. Except this time, as Westbrook ran to set the screen, Durant made a fake jab towards Westbrook and veered baseline for an unimpeded dunk. Jackson, understandably, was lulled to sleep and made one ill-fated mistake. And to compound matters, Jackson fouled Durant on the play.

I don’t blame him, though. It’s not so easy defending one of the most talented offensive teams in the league, not when they are operating at that level. Successful offense shouldn’t be limited; it should be appreciated regardless of philosophy. There is a difference between 110 points for San Antonio or Oklahoma City. I prefer watching the Spurs. But I shouldn’t have completely dismissed the Thunder’s offensive achievements either. It’s an elitists approach to watching basketball.

I should have recognized Oklahoma City’s brilliance sooner.

I’ve been missing out.