Coach: Western Conference Finals Breakdown
Thunder’s Test of Discipline
The NBA world is now gearing up for the Western Conference Finals matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. A contrast of styles and experience make this one of the most eagerly anticipated series in quite some time. For a team with the youthful exuberance and energy of the Thunder, the biggest challenge will be channeling that enthusiasm into smart, tough, disciplined play on the defensive end.
San Antonio does as good a job spreading apart opposing defenses as any team of the last fifteen years, even when you include Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns’ squads. They consistently find open teammates, take only high quality shots, and Parker’s penetration off the ball screen is nearly impossible to guard. Add in the fact that opposing bigs must stay glued to Tim Duncan, and you have a recipe for efficient and productive offense.
One of OKC’s great strengths throughout the year is creating transition opportunities by generating turnovers and steals. As a unit, they tend to gamble, particularly the “big three” of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Their defensive philosophy features this as a strength, allowing those players to pick their spots in the passing lanes. In most cases, this is a sound approach, and the kind of fullcourt action they are able to generate makes up for the times when their opponent is able to find an easy score.
Against the Spurs, though, this approach might not be the best idea. San Antonio’s entire philosophy is to punish team that over-extend or who are over-aggressive on closeouts. The Spurs, quite simply, are built to beat teams like the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Boston Celtics in the east, and teams like the Thunder in the west.
A disciplined approach defensively, with each player taking responsibility for being in the right place at the right time and doing their job, is the only way Oklahoma City can be successful in the long haul of a seven game series. San Antonio does a better job of making teams pay for their mistakes than anyone, and staying mistake-free will be critical to OKC’s success.
Generally speaking, there are two approaches on the defensive end (at least in man-to-man), called “push” or “pack.” In “push,” the defense’s goal is to push the offense out of their sets by playing in the passing lanes and preventing them from executing normally both on and off the ball. In “pack,” the defense’s goal is to prevent the offense from penetrating via the dribble or the pass by placing all defenders except the ball defender within a pack line in and around the lane.
The placement of the imaginary pack line can be altered depending on the opponent: against teams that struggle shooting, you might require all off-ball defenders to have a foot in the lane; against good shooting teams, you might have off-ball defenders restricted from extending beyond a line approximately the distance of the college three point line (20’ 6”).
Against the Spurs, using a strict pack-line structure might prevent OKC from the times they gamble recklessly. There is a trade-off, of course: this style also prevents them from getting out on the break with the same regularity and it can be mentally draining for a team that has thrived all year in playing more aggressively. Their ability to stay disciplined will be the key to the entire series.
High Screen Duel
Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs are absolutely deadly utilizing high ball screens. A key for both will be how they approach defending these actions. A suggested approach for both teams follows.
Spurs’ gameplan vs. Thunder
Russell Westbrook is just plain scary when he gets into the teeth of the defense. Capable of penetration using a screen or not, Westbrook forces defenders to shift and make up ground, and his athleticism allows him to snake his way to the rim to draw fouls and find easy finishes. Where he is not as effective, however, is in the mid-range, particularly off of open penetration where space was not created between him and his defender.
The Spurs may want to take advantage of this weakness by “busting” any high screen involving Westbrook; that is, they would jump on the high side of the screen and force him to refuse it, then use help defenders to commit to keeping him out of the lane itself. In a fair number of cases, he will opt for the 15-18 foot pull-up, which is not a particularly reliable shot for him. Because of the space created by a ball screen, Westbrook’s ability to shoot that same shot after using a pick improves substantially, so disrupting the point of attack is critical for San Antonio.
Thunder gameplan vs. Spurs:
The Thunder have different problems when it comes to guarding Tony Parker in the same action. Parker is so good from the midrange area, and so quick when it comes to change-of-direction out high, that jumping the screen would be a huge error (remember: stay disciplined, not too extended, against the Spurs). There is no real ideal way to guard Parker off of this action, as any choice made gives him options in their offense.
As such, the Thunder will want to keep multiple defenders back, and stunt at Parker as much as possible to create indecision. A soft approach at the point of attack, followed by having help defenders show and recover on Parker at multiple levels, would be the best approach. Also, occasionally having the stunting defender commit to a run and jump switch, might be effective. In this move, as Parker comes off the screen, his on-ball defender trailing, a help defender moves to show. Parker changes speed or direction as a result of the stunting defender, who then commits and switches onto Parker. Parker’s original defender sprints past him, hands up to assume a defensive position against the near outlet on the strong side.
The jump switch maneuver should only be used sparingly, as it carries significant risk of allowing open shots in rapid succession. However, as a seldom-used surprise attack, it can be very effective at altering timing and flow, two things the Spurs’ offense relies upon heavily.
Spurs in 6. Their offensive firepower combined with OKC’s gambling nature is too much for the Thunder to overcome.
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Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Macri is a consultant to the ASEAN Basketball League (the first regional pro basketball league in southeast Asia), offering strategic analysis on basketball and business development, league operations, and marketing. Previously, Macri served as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe and as a coach at the IMG Basketball Academy and two nationally ranked high school programs. The Coach’s Notebook is a weekly feature on HOOPSWORLD.