Oklahoma City Thunder’s Defensive Issues Against Houston Could Hurt Them Versus Memphis


May 3, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Omer Asik (3) and Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins (5) exchange words during the first quarter in game six of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When Russell Westbrook was unexpectedly removed from these playoffs, the Thunder’s title chances took an obvious hit. Not only were they losing the second best player on their team, they were losing a top seven player in the league. The replacement for his production is something that is not easily produced this late into the season and when competition stiffens, this could lead to very big problems for OKC.

However, in the midst of all these possible outcomes for the Russ-less Thunder, losing to the eight seeded Rockets was not one of them. And yet Houston pushed the series to six games and did so in such a fashion that people began to question if OKC would even get out of the first round. Inevitably they did, and the shots that were just not falling in Game 5 came back in force for Game 6, as the Thunder reasserted their dominance onto the much younger and much weaker Houston team.

The problems that OKC had with the Rockets, though, are ones that will not go away as the postseason progresses. Offensively the Thunder scored 2.5 points worse per 100 possessions in this series than they averaged during the year, and considering Houston’s less then stellar defense, this seems to be a systematic flaw.

Without Westbrook the offense has grown stagnant, Durant has taken over much of the ball handling duties and isolation has become the play set of choice. And yet, even a predictable, isolation heavy offense, when run by Kevin Durant, is still an elite one as the 107.7 points per 100 possession the Thunder averaged this series is good for top five in the league.

No, the the most worrisome result of the series has little to with the loss of Westbrook, it was an ineptitude on defense that we haven’t seen from them all year. Throughout the regular season the Thunder maintained a top five defense, in the series they gave up seven more points per 100 possessions then they averaged all year and for the series averaged a rating that would have put them 25th in the league.

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The biggest problems defensively didn’t come from mismatches (although playing Kendrick Perkins as much as Brooks does is a perpetual self-inflicted mismatch) but from a lack of communication, failure to get back in transition and repeated fundamental breakdowns in defending the pick and roll.

The first two clips show two back to back possessions where Perkins and Durant are confused about whether or not they are switching after the pick. Durant switches onto Asik the first time while Perkins continues to stick with him, leaving Parsons open and then in the second play Durant stays on Garcia while Perkins expects a switch, leaving Asik open. The rest of the clips show just poor pick and roll coverage by Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins, an inability to get through the screen on Jacskon’s part and an overall lack of mobility from Perkins.

More switching miscommunication occurs here, where Durant and Kevin Martin get mixed up by a simple dribble hand-off because neither is on the same page about who is guarding who. These clips are only from Game 5 but they are an apt representation of what was going on during the entire series. The defense was better in Game 6, but these breakdowns in communication didn’t completely go away.

Westbrook, for all his athletic superiority, is merely an average defender and while his absence leads to more playing time for Derek Fisher (never a good thing for a team’s defense), his loss should not be causing this much chaos within the Thunder’s defensive schemes. OKC got away with it against Houston because the Rockets are simply not good or experienced enough to take full advantage of a hobbled elite team.

Memphis, though, is a different story. The Grizzlies are coming off scoring nearly 110 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers ninth ranked defense (a number similar to what the Thunder’s vaunted offense averaged in the regular season) and their size already serves as a built in matchup problem.

Brooks has some interesting lineup decisions to make heading into the series and needs to figure out an overall philosophy for how he wants his team to play. Does he try to match Memphis’ size by overplaying Perkins and keeping Durant locked in at small forward, or does he try to dictate the matchup himself by going small with Durant at the four and Collision, or maybe even Ibaka, at center?

Whatever way the Thunder chooses to play, they are going to need to close whatever rift in communication that opened up against Houston, because you can be sure that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are licking their chops at the prospect of playing a confused and poorly executed defense.