The Oklahoma City Thunder’s big man conundrum
Oklahoma City has a chance to join the Jordan-led Bulls as the only team to win the NBA title in the last 40 years without a back-to-the-basket big man*.Miamicould also make that claim as Chris Bosh is capable of scoring from the post but is more the millennial big who prefers to shoot and drive over play with his back to the basket.
*Some might argue Dirk Nowitzki is not a back-to-the-basket big man; however, Nowitzki in many ways has evolved into a back-to-the-basket scorer and his ability to score from the block is one of the big reasons the Mavs finally won a title.
Bosh at least looks the part, and he’s a capable scorer in the post. He dominated the final minutes of Game 3 with his help defense (see video of block below), and his presence has opened up driving lanes for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Since 1974, only the Bulls and the Pistons’ three title teams (1989, 90 and 2004) have won the title without a post player who was first or second on the team in scoring. The 2004 Pistons had Rasheed Wallace, who was a more than capable low post scorer, and the Bulls final three title teams played throughJordanoften with his back to the basket. History, obviously, is on the side of the Heat and their scoring big man Bosh.
The way the Thunder are built is against NBA logic. In many ways, they acquired Kendrick Perkins to pull this off. Acquiring a dominant post scorer isn’t easy because they’re so valuable. However, acquiring a big man who is offensively challenged but has enough size and strength to defend those dominant bigs was a possibility. Perkins was attainable and at least gave the Thunder a big presence on one end.
In the last two series when OKC knocked off the Lakers and the Spurs, Perkins presence made sense. It’s tough to sit a player who started all season and helped get you to this point, but Scott Brooks did that in Game 1. He sat Perkins throughout the fourth quarter and the Thunder outscored the Heat 31-21.
In the last two games, Brooks has not been so bold. Even though Perkins just doesn’t fit on either end, he’s tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. Perkins is a poor choice to defend Bosh because of Bosh’s ability to make perimeter shots or drive from the perimeter. Lateral quickness is not Perk’s forte. He belongs in the paint. Offensively,Miamiis packing the paint. Watch that video above again. Four of the Heat’s defenders are in the paint. Yes, Perkins is not in the game in this clip, but Perk would have likely been in Nick Collison’s position. Collison should have slid back a few feet, leaving himself open for a 14-footer on the baseline. That’s a shot Collison can make. Perkins cannot.
Learn from your elders
The clip above and the final minutes of Game 3 were reminiscent of the first two games against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs ball movement gave basketball purists chills. The Thunder relied on their athleticism and talent to score. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took turns trying to make difficult shots. They made enough of them to keep the games respectable but teamwork got the better of talent.
In the final four games of the series (all Thunder wins), the Thunder learned from the elder Spurs and shared the ball. Their ball movement and player movement improved and their shots got easier. In the first two games, they assisted on 51.4 percent of their field goals; in the final four, their assist numbers went way up and they assisted on 56.3 percent of their field goals.
Not only did the Thunder’s movement get them better shots, it also got the Spurs’ defense to move. By forcing the Spurs to rotate and close out on Durant, Westbrook or James Harden, driving lanes were opened and the athleticism of the Thunder’s big three made a huge difference.
That athleticism and ability to drive to the basket was negated late in Game 3, and it’s because the ball quit moving. When one player dribbles out the clock for the Thunder, the Heat are able to concentrate on that one player, pack the paint and send help when Durant, Westbrook or Harden drives.
The Thunder used a similar defense to win Game 1. Thabo Sefolosha got a lot of credit for his defense in the fourth quarter of Game 1 on James. Sefolosha did a good job of not letting James turn the corner on him, but he also had a lot of help from Collison. Sefolosha led James to Collison’s help, and James went 2 of 6 and had a turnover (a Collison steal) in the fourth quarter. The reason: it’s hard to score over two defenders.
This is why, for the Thunder to win, Brooks needs to bench Perkins. If Perkins plays, the Thunder end up playing four on five on offense and Perkins’ defender will always be able to help against drives. Serge Ibaka and Collison are both better help defenders, which is the key to slowing James and Wade. Even if Collison or Ibaka is on Bosh, they have the ability to help and recover to get back to Bosh.
If Brooks wants a traditional look at times, he can play both Ibaka and Collison together. Perkins should only be used for spot minutes. He should not be an integral part of the rotation.
Yes, it typically takes a traditional big man to win an NBA title (see the history of the NBA). But this is not a traditional championship series.