OKC’s issues extend far beyond Ibaka’s absence

Photo: Darren Abate/AP

Regularly throughout the NBA playoffs, we’ll be checking in with former Raptors head coach Butch Carter for an insider’s perspective on the X’s and O’s that lead to W’s and L’s. Today, Coach Carter breaks down the maturity gap between the Spurs and Thunder and it’s on-court results.

What you’re seeing when you watch this series is the difference in maturity between two teams. The San Antonio Spurs are the most mature team, along with the Miami Heat, when it comes to understanding what they’re players can do and when they’re doing it well; the Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t.

Last night, the whole momentum of the game spiked in the Spurs’ favour at the start of the second quarter. Oklahoma City turned the ball over and the Spurs translated it into a Danny Green three in transition. To the average fan, it may have seemed like it was San Antonio’s onslaught at the end of that quarter that did the Thunder in—and that was important—but it was Green’s shot that really set the tone.

If the other team had a great three-point shooter (which Green has proven to be in the playoffs) what I used to do as a coach was put a red shirt on a guy in practice. That let the rest of my guys know “he’s on fire”, which meant that whoever was closest to him in transition had to stay with him—you don’t give him any space if you can help it.

It’s the same issue the Raptors ran into in Game 5 against Brooklyn when Alan Anderson was getting clean looks from deep. You can’t take a hot shooter and try to cross defensively in transition, because it makes you far more liable to lose him. The guy guarding him has to stay beside him.

San Antonio makes it difficult to contain a guy like Green when he has it going thanks to their tremendous awareness. The Spurs do a great job of identifying and feeding the hot hand, and that’s because they have more guys who I call “possession counters” than any other team. Possession counters know who is hot on the unit they’re playing with and communicate that to the rest of the team. For example, a possession counter will point out, “Hey, we just went down the court five times and Danny hit two threes, so he’s got to get the ball before somebody else on the next trip.” It’s something that has been transferred from the coaching staff to the players; an understanding of the coaching philosophy that recognizes who has been scoring in the last five possessions at any given point in the game.

Conversely, we’ve seen a number of playoff games for the Thunder where Durant has made three shots in a row and then he doesn’t get a look the next time up the floor—instead, Russell
Westbrook fires one up. You won’t see that happen on the Spurs, and it comes down to maturity.

Over the last nine years, San Antonio has led the league in winning the first and third quarters, and teams that win the first and third go on to win the game around 78 percent of the time. That consistency speaks to the core of this team, and the maturity that has been transferred from the coaching staff to the players. They’re so in tune with their coach, but it goes beyond that: Pop has made the players responsible for each other. He knows they already know their responsibilities and what is required of them to help the team. And it’s not just certain players, because they’re winning the first and third quarters regardless of who’s starting. That’s the awesome part about that stat: If Pop decides to rest Duncan and Parker the goal is the same—win the first and third—and the players take it upon themselves to make it happen.

In general and in contrast, Scott Brooks is doing a very poor job preparing his team after dead balls, whether it’s at the start a quarter or after timeouts. The Thunder don’t get any easy baskets. Popovich, on the other hand, is always prepared with designed plays after timeouts.

Through the first two games, San Antonio has employed an aggressive plan to attack the basket and generate fouls. Even though the Spurs were shooting 40 percent at halftime last night, the free-throw differential was in their favour. They’re aggressive and attacking inside because they know Oklahoma City’s bench is very thin. In doing so, Popovich is forcing Brooks to do something he doesn’t really want to, which is to use the seven, eight, nine guys on his bench.

Brooks has not made the adjustments he needs. He’s taking guys out when they have two fouls, as if they were normal starters—something he did with Nick Collison last night. Given the circumstances and OKC’s lack of depth, he has to let those players play. In a normal situation a coach would say, “It’s his second foul, so I have to take him out of the game.” But the reality is that on this Thunder team the separation between the person you’re substituting out and the player replacing him is immense.

Brooks seems to make sure his star players are happy and getting shots instead of focusing on the effectiveness of his substitutions. As an example, he’ll play Sefolosha seven minutes to start the game and then won’t play him anymore. That’s not going to work. You can’t take a guy that has the kind of credibility Sefolosha has and put him on a leash like that. You’ve got to be willing to put him out there and let him fail. Stand behind your players.

Oklahoma City simply doesn’t have the maturity to match San Antonio. They do play better at home—a plus heading into Game 3—but it’s going to take fundamental changes for them to come out on top.

For more insight and analysis on the NBA playoffs, follow Coach Carter on Twitter @TOButchCarter

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