Henry Abbott is maybe the smartest basketball writer out there and he’s always had a different take on what teams should do in late game scenarios. It’s simple he says. Run your offense.
The reasoning is there. If you do it for the other 47 minutes and 50 seconds, why not do it for the last 10? If your offense is good, your sets work, why go away from them to run a low percentage isolation play with your best player? The numbers have never disagreed. Except most coaches do. Watch most any NBA game that’s tied or within a possession late and you’ll see the same thing. Maybe there’s a little weakside screen to free up The Star, but in the end, it’s all about isolation and that player making a play.
Now, I might be wrong, but I’ve watched a lot of basketball this season. And the one team I’ve seen go consistently away from any iso play and instead run an actual set is Oklahoma City. Ironic, seeing as the Thunder has gained a lot of ire for their late game execution.
I asked Scott Brooks about doing exactly that and he said, “There are some times where I feel that the game can give us a better shot with a set. I like the way our bigs set screens. We just have to continue to work on it. It’s not an easy play and we all need to improve on it, including myself.”
I wondered if it had anything to do with the fact Durant struggles handling the ball, especially when the defense sends an extra defender. Based on KD’s skillset, it seems easier for him to get a look off a catch-and-shoot rather than dribble to the elbow like Paul Pierce would.
“If you want to get KD a shot, he’s one of the best pindown players in the game,” Brooks said. “When you give him iso, they collapse on him, they throw an extra defender. KD’s a willing passer. I have no problem doing that because KD makes the right play. He’s not always going to make the shot, but he’s always going to make the right play.”
Henry and I were chatting about how OKC chooses to run their offense late and his thought was, maybe the Thunder are the test case in value of isoing? It’s interesting because a lot of the plays Brooks calls for that last shot are typical sets you set at other points in the game. It’s not like Brooks is a bad playcaller. Look at this beauty he drew up out of a timeout. It’s a gorgeous play. Durant missed the jumper but that’s the thing. It takes two for a play to work. The coach has to dial it up and the players have to make it happen.
And in principle, the last play Sunday wasn’t a bad one. In theory, it gets Durant moving on the catch toward the basket with a chance to get a decent shot off. That’s what you want, right? He can make that shot. We’ve seen him do it. But when you run plays like OKC does, there are a lot of variables that come into it. You have to get a good screen (or screens). You have to get a good pass. You have to have a clean catch. You have to get a good first step and clean first dribble. And you have to time it all correctly so that you don’t go too soon or too late. A lot has to go right.
That’s why most teams choose to put the ball in the hands of their best player and let him go to work. Watch Manu Ginobili beat the Bucks. Watch Paul Pierce beat the Knicks. Watch Rudy Gay beat the Heat. But OKC has a problem with that. I mentioned it earlier. It’s because it’s tough for Durant to create that on his own. It’s not that KD’s handle is bad, it’s just that when you’re seven feet tall, the ball has a long way to go to be dribbled. It makes it easier to steal, especially when a shorter guard comes running at him. Durant can get his shot over anyone, but if he needs five or six dribbles to it, that becomes a problem.
So the question is, do you then take the ball out of Durant’s hands and give it to Russell Westbrook or James Harden to finish? That’s the conundrum Scott Brooks faces. I like the idea of Westbrook creating off the dribble for himself because we know he can create space with a drive and pull up from 15 feet. That look would likely be there. But you play with the issue of “Whose team is it?” if you start taking the ball from Durant. I don’t know that’s a fire Brooks wants to stick his face in.
One thing I feel like could benefit OKC late is to not take the ball at halfcourt. Letting Westbrook bring the ball up with a little steam with 10 seconds on the clock, could give OKC a little better spacing and maybe let the offense breathe a bit more. Just a thought.
Like I said though after the New York game-winner, I can live with a shot like Durant took Sunday night. It’s a player that can make that a tough shot and it’s the player you want taking it. Getting a good look in those situations isn’t as easy as just running a little play, having Durant curl off a pick and drop a sweet 18-footer. Defenses know who’s getting the ball and for the most part, they know how they’re getting it. They watch tape. They know tendencies. And they fight just a little bit harder through those picks in those situations. Referees swallow their whistles and it’s up to the offense to make a play.
Stan Van Gundy talked about running offense in crunch time and his point his hard to ignore. “You can talk about running your offense all you want. But the best teams in this league, now and forever, historically, have been teams that have those guys who, as the shot clock’s running down, and the game’s running down, can get the ball and go get a shot. Or force the double team and create a good shot. Especially when playing against good teams, it’s not like you’re going to trick somebody or get something real easy. Or run a guy off a screen and he’s going to be wide open. You’re going to have to make a play. This whole idea that you’re going to run your offense, I mean, you are to some degree, but it’s still going to come down a guy making a play.”
And that’s what Brooks was counting on Sunday against the Suns. Durant making a play. If you want one guy to do it on the Thunder roster, it’s him. (Or maybe Westbrook, in some circumstances.) KD can make impossible shots possible and absolutely has the ability to make the one he took against Phoenix. If you told me it’s Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and that’s the shot OKC gets to win the game at the buzzer, I’d take it. I can absolutely live with Durant taking that to win.
Could it be better? Of course. Brooks admitted that. He said he needs to improve in that area. But as long as the Thunder runs sets — which they sort of have to — Brooks is going to have to live with constant critiquing of his plays and we’re going to have to live with some busted sets and bad looks. The only thing that’s changing that is if KD improves in getting his own after a few dribbles or Brooks takes the ball out of Durant’s hands.
And I don’t see the latter happening.