There was a time when Oklahoma City residents would feel disappointed if a visiting team’s best player had to sit out a game at the Ford Center. That was because so much of the decision for buying a ticket to the game hinged upon what star players would be coming through town. To be fair, once the game started, the fans in attendance usually rooted for the hometown team, but what got them out of the house was the potential to see Kobe or LeBron or Tracy McGrady have a big night.
These days things have changed. On January 13th, Tim Duncan was a late scratch for the San Antonio Spurs, and when the starting line ups were announced there was an audible sigh of relief that “The Big Fundamental’s” name wasn’t called. This past Tuesday, Steve Nash’s back was giving him enough trouble that he didn’t even fly to Oklahoma City for an important Western Conference match up with playoff implications. There was much rejoicing among the Thunder fanbase.
Of course, maybe we had it right originally.
The expectation, of course, was that our visiting opposition would be an easier mark without their floor leaders. Truthfully, that is generally a good assumption. In these two cases, however, the Thunder lost both games, and it was the absence of the star that may have been the difference.
When the Spurs managed to hold of Oklahoma City in overtime on that day in January, Duncan’s absence was a circumstance the team was unprepared. Spurs coach Greg Popovich did not decide to rest his star (who is aging and had played extended minutes the night before) until maybe half an hour before tip off. As a result, DeJuan Blair’s surprise start hit the Thunder hard.
The rookie second rounder set career highs that night in points (28) and rebounds (21) while generally manhandling the Thunder’s unprepared interior. Of course, my theory was that Popovich knew the late scratch could work in his team’s favor. Only Phil Jackson is known more for psychological gamesmanship, and Coach Pop very likely saw that the officiating staff had a tendency to allow physical play in the post. Blair, who plays like a bull in a china shop, used his excessive weight and strength to send the Thunder’s finesse bigs into the second row with two hand shoves all night, but didn’t foul out until overtime.
Less understandable was the way Nash’s replacement, little used second year man Goran Dragic, managed to keep the Suns from taking a step backwards. It does not take a basketball expert to understand that Phoenix’s run and gun system is predicated on Nash being the primary ball handler. Their record in games he has missed since being signed away from Dallas has been paltry. And in this case, his primary back up, Leandro Barbosa, was also missing in action. Factor in that the Thunder had beaten the Suns with Nash in Phoenix back when the Suns were playing better basketball, and most people had this down as an easy W for OKC.
Tuesday night, however, you could hardly tell the Suns were missing their heart and soul as Dragic put up a Nash-like 16 points (on 7 of 11 shooting) and ten assists. More importantly, the offense flowed just as if Nash had been there. Certainly, those weren’t eye popping statistics (like Blair put up), but considering the team had two days to prepare a scouting report on the third string point guard, why wasn’t the team defense ready to shut him down?
My first inclination would be to look at the coaching staff. The onus is on Coach Brooks and his staff to prepare the team for contingencies and provide the players with the knowledge they need to match up against different players. It is also their job to make line up adjustments when things aren’t working. In the San Antonio game, particularly, this did not happen. While Blair was completely destroying our interior defense and racking up rebound after rebound to give his team second and third chances, the staff hesitated to make a change. Nenad Krstic just kept getting beaten like a…is there any simile I can use here that won’t be offensive?
Anyway, the players certainly share in the blame, as well. Despite their great improvement in the defensive area this season, these two games have shown a glaring weakness for adapting. When Blair was giving Jeff Green (or anyone else) a two handed shove to the back to secure another offensive rebound, he could have exaggerated the contact (in other words, flopped) to force the referees to pay attention. And Russell Westbrook, who had the responsibility of guarding Dragic, was slow to realize that Dragic could not be left wide open. Either he didn’t read the scouting report, or else he failed to realize he had underestimated Dragic’s offensive abilities.
Sure, this is a limited sample size, but the Thunder will really be hurt later if they fail to address this delayed adaptation…particularly come playoff time. When they have to face the same team for up to seven straight games, opposing coaches are going to bring different looks at them constantly. If they continue to have trouble changing their tendencies to address the matchup changes, it could be a very short playoff run.