Get your torch and pitch fork ready because something tells me that there’s going to be some disagreement with this column, which really kind of surprises me since I’ve always thought that it was pretty straightforward when it came to what the Thunder is missing, what flaws they have and how all of that has and will bite them again in the future.
The reason I’m surprised by there being disagreement with this is that, well, every team has flaws. There is no such thing as a perfect team without weaknesses. The trick is for that team to play to such a way or in such a style that minimizes their weaknesses and enhances their strengths. And as we saw in yesterday’s article, the Thunder certainly play very well to their strengths and maximize their talent (you could even argue that they have played a little above their experience and talent level this year).
And just to refresh, the Thunder’s defense, their elite scorer in Kevin Durant and their road record give them three reasons why a higher seed really doesn’t want to match up with them in the playoffs.
But there are two factors that the Thunder lack when it comes to making a deep run in the playoffs and these two factors almost always end up costing a team a series, either early on or deeper in the playoffs.
But before we get to that I’d like to discuss why one of the factors I’ve always looked at in the playoffs is not one of these five.
Experience is often looked at as being essential to making a deep playoff run and there’s certainly credibility to that statement, but it’s my opinion that experience itself is not the end all, be all, determiner when it comes to postseason success. Talent is.
Obviously experience is a huge bonus and having experience in the playoffs will only help a team in the future, but there are too many instances where one team had greater talent and less experience and wound up beating a team with much more playoff experience (the Magic’s run last season, the Golden State upset of Dallas a few years back, and even the Nuggets 4-1 destruction over the Mavs last year), which shows that as far as being comparable to talent and efficient execution on both ends of the court, postseason experience is a little overrated as an x-factor.
In fact, to use that Golden State example, sometimes having absolutely no experience or expectation about what is supposed to happen is a good thing. It removes self-doubt and disbelief. That almost naive idea of “Why can’t we beat a #1 seed who outclasses us at almost every position on the court?” becomes your greatest strength instead of the crippling weakness most individuals associate with being too young and inexperienced, AS LONG AS the intensity and composure of the playoffs does not get the best of that young and inexperienced team. And that is a BIG if.
That being said, if all things are equal in a matchup in terms of talent, coaching and execution, I’d absolutely prefer a group of inspired and tenacious players who have been there before and know what they’re doing than the wide-eyed newcomers because they won’t be shell-shocked if they get down a few games, but I’d like to think the Thunder wouldn’t either (the optimist in me says, “hello”) so that is why experience is not one of the five factors.
But here’s the two that are…
Factor No. 4
Offensive Execution in the Half-court – Sorry run and gun, you won’t be having fun in the playoffs
Since almost everything I type here will be evidence based support for why these factors will make it hard on the Thunder to advance out of the first round and beyond in the playoffs, I’m going to do without the Precedent portion of these factors.
If you play fast during the regular season, odds are you’ll also have a fast exit from the postseason. Why? Because the game slows down in the playoffs, transition offense slows to a crawl. Sure it still takes place however it is significantly reduced to the rare exception in a game that will be almost entirely run via a half-court chess match.
Up goes intensity, up goes defense, down goes run and gun.
This conundrum has inspired the quintessential Kobayashi Maru of NBA basketball: Would the Phoenix Suns have been the exception that either broke or proved this rule and won a championship if Big Shot Rob had not hip-checked Nash into the scorer’s table and Amare had not dabbed his toe across the silver line that separated the bench from the court.
Obviously, we’ll never know. But I’d lean more towards them being the exception that PROVED the rule, that run and gun teams will never go deep in the playoffs than the team that revealed it to be false.
Of the Top 10 teams in Pace last season, only two made it out of the first round: the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers. Expand it to the top half of the league in Pace andonly three teams made it past the first round (Orlando checked in at #12).
Where do the Thunder check in at this season? Try #13 in Pace.
Obviously that alone is not a death sentence for a first round exit for the Thunder, sure the odds would be against them in the form of a 62.5% likelihood that they would not advance past the first round while being in the upper half in the NBA in pace, but those aren’t impossible odds…right?
Well here’s the kicker, I’m not just talking about pace when it comes to Offensive Efficiency in a half-court set, the other side of this equation is how efficient you are at putting the round ball through the iron ring. And you’ll see that of those three teams who advanced past the first round, the Nuggets, Lakers and Magic, that were in the top half in the league in Pace, also happened to be pretty ridiculous when it came to their ability to efficiently score the bucket overall.
Of the Top 7 teams who led the league in Adjusted FG% last year (here’s where we get to remove the anomaly that is the Phoenix Suns, who somehow led the league in Adjusted FG% last year but didn’t make the playoffs…Factor No. 1, anyone?), FIVE (of the six who made the playoffs) advanced past the first round and FOUR advanced past the second round (Orlando was matched up with Boston so one of them had to go down).
And if you are paying special attention to that last number you’ll realize that the the four teams who made it to the Conference Finals, and thereby the two that went on the NBA Finals, were all in the Top 7 in Adjusted FG% over the regular season.
Better yet, only one team out of the Top 10 in Adjusted FG% made it past the first round last year, that being the Houston Rockets who checked in at #13 last season.
Where do the Thunder clock in at this season?
Try tied for 22nd. Yes, they are in the Bottom 8 in the league, in Adjusted FG%. They are the only Western Conference team in the bottom half who would make the playoffs today if the season ended.
But hey, I’m not all doom and gloom. That’s a fantastic step in the right direction from last season, when the Thunder were the WORST team in the NBA in Adjusted FG% (that .017 increase makes all the difference!).
So even if it spells trouble for their opening playoff series, the Thunder are absolutely making progress on the offensive end. We might just not get to reap the benefits of it until next season’s playoff run.
Of course even that might be dependent on them addressing the last factor (definitely not last in importance) of playoff basketball that undoubtedly WILL hurt the Thunder in the playoffs.
Factor No. 5
Post Presence – There’s no use in arguing over it, no sense in fighting it; it’s just the way it is people
You don’t go deep in the playoffs without a dominant post presence on both ends of the court. That’s just the reality of the situation. ESPECIALLY if you’re team is matched up against a legitimate post presence on both ends of the court. There’s really no point in any of us dignifying a rebuttal to this fact with a response.
I’m sorry to be the one to state the obvious and not focus on the Thunder’s improved “team mentality” shot-blocking and offensive rebounding, but here’s the deal: the Thunder is a jumpshooting team who allows the third highest amount of shots in the immediate vicinity of the hoop (three feet and in–it seems like commenter justin was channeling some of this article yesterday).
Or in other words, the Thunder routinely has to settle for more difficult shots on offense since they don’t have a true post presence to dump the ball into and get easy looks at the basket (the closer you are the easier the shot, as we all know) AND the Thunder allow the third most looks at the easiest shot in the game on defense.
Do you know what that spells? Early NBA summer vacation.
Scoring gets harder in the playoffs. So the more dependent you are on difficult shots, the harder it is going to be for you to put the ball in the basket.
The fact of the matter is that a legitimate post presence on both sides of the ball directly affects the other four factors of playoff basketball.
- Your defense becomes that much more improved at eliminating mistakes when you have a shot-blocking threat anchored in the post to help out when a teammate gets beat on a dribble-drive. Did I mention defensive rebounding woes being gone, too?
- Your elite scorer will get more open looks and have an easier time getting to the hoop with a legitimate post threat on the block because he will demand attention (if not a double team) when the ball is dumped down low, thereby freeing up your elite scorer to make the other team pay by getting buckets
- Your ability to win on the road becomes easier because your entire offense does not revolve around jumpshooting, which means that if you’re jumpshot is off, you can ACTUALLY STILL have a legitimate shot at winning the game (this seems foreign to me!) because you can get higher percentage looks at the basket and keep the other team from getting second possessions off of a missed shot on their own court, which we all know pumps up the crowd, thereby amplifying the home court advantage.
- And lastly, your half-court offense skyrockets in efficiency with a post presence down low. There’s no run and gun with a post presence on the offensive end unless he’s the trailer on a very rare run out in the playoffs. His job is to be on the block, to be a mere 3-6 feet away from the rim in the half-court set. And simply put, there’s just not a more efficient shot in the NBA than one that takes place within three-to-six feet of the rim.
To sum all that up, a post presence just makes everything easier on a team in all facets of the game. It frees up your offense to be multidimensional so a team can’t figure you out in one game and then own you the rest of the series. It anchors your defense so that a team can’t simply over power you down low, can’t get unaltered or free looks at the rim without a legitimate shotblocker or earn extra possessions off of a great defensive possession on your part with offensive rebounds.
And that’s the thing I think everyone is forgetting about, a playoff series is not one game where anything can happen. It’s a best-of-seven, grind out, I know you and you know me, slugfest. Every flaw is visible, if not severely exposed and taken advantage of from game one. The more one-dimensional and flawed you are the harder you’re going to make it on yourself to advance.
But I’ll end by saying this, if we have learned anything it about this Thunder team it is that you should check your expectations at the door and just go along for the ride because it’s been a pretty good one thus far since none of us have a definitive clue about this team’s ceiling.
And that 3 out of 5 still means the Thunder have a pretty good shot once they reach the place where amazing happens and anything is possible.