The Oklahoma City Thunder needed to make adjustments going into Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Adjustments they made, managing 111 points. Yet they still lost, allowing 120 points. The Thunder can’t win the series if they give up that many, but it’s not just their defensive shortcoming. What we saw in the first three quarters from the San Antonio Spurs was a clinic on offense.
Let’s begin with a look at the Spurs’ shot chart from Tuesday night:
The Spurs know where their most effective spots are — the green and the yellow, above average and average, respectively — and they limited themselves to just three shots in their weak areas — the red. They didn’t even attempt any straight-ahead 3s, which is one of the toughest shots to make. They got everyone involved early on, including guys like Danny Green who didn’t play well in Game 1, shooting 0-6 and with 0 points. Here is the play Gregg Popovich drew up for him:
This is a set that the Spurs run for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili very often, but rarely for Green. But Popovich knew he could get an early, open look for his struggling player, and ultimately Green scored 10 points on 10 shots, including two 3s — a vast improvement.
Another facet of the Spurs’ commanding offense was how they pushed the basketball, making quick outlet passes, getting out in transition, and probing the defense:
This has been a staple of the Spurs’ offense for the past two seasons. As opposed to Parker walking the ball up, he pushes it every time, and his bigs know to look for his outlet passes. If no one is open, Parker pulls back. But the majority of the time, the Spurs can get easy fast-break points like in the video above.
A third integral part of the Spurs’ offense (for more than two years) has been the corner 3. If the defense sends help to take away layups, corner 3s are just as good of an option.
They can rely on the corner 3 because of how well they routinely execute. The Spurs don’t make the pass into the corner after an assessment of all the options. Rather, they see the help defense by the basket and go for the corner instead, knowing there will be an open guy there.
They are continuing to dominate because of some tactics that Popovich has tailored for this particular matchup. For example, they’ve begun using Parker off of the basketball much more, making guys like Russell Westbrook and Derek Fisher chase him around and fight through screens:
Westbrook has to focus on defense at all times, and he already is not the best off-ball defender (though he can be very good in stretches), which you can see here. He gets stuck on screens, and because their bigs aren’t the most mobile, they can’t help.
Parker has also changed the way he plays pick-and-rolls. He comes off of screens looking to get in the paint, but he doesn’t force it. Instead, he will kick the ball back to his big, follow his pass, and get another ball screen. Sometimes, he will need a third screen, but the Spurs patiently wait for the defense to commit an error that they can exploit. The Spurs have previously run successive pick-and-rolls, but they are doing it at a much higher rate this series. Watch them do it in the video below:
In the fourth quarter Tuesday night, the Thunder began to slow this Spurs offense. Yes, the Spurs still scored 28 points, but it was much less efficient (43.5 percent shooting) and the Thunder came within six points. By looking at the Spurs’ fourth-quarter shot chart, you can see that something had changed:
They attempted two 3s from the corner and seven from the wing, going 2-9. When the Spurs settle for shots on the wing, the defense can consider it a win. The Thunder began to deny the Spurs’ advantage in pick-and-rolls by forcing the ball handler away from screens and into an awaiting defender:
As they prevented the Spurs from getting into the paint, the defenders in the corners could remain there, thus limiting corner 3s as well. If Parker did use the screen, they corralled him such that he couldn’t reset. The Spurs began relying on isolations, which is not as effective for them.
Expect the Thunder to begin Game 3 with this defensive strategy. The Spurs will probably have prepared a counter, but Scott Brooks has to limit the amount of points the Spurs score, and this might be the way.