Russell Westbrook is the big, bold discussion that everyone seems to have an opinion on. Breaking down every decision he makes, critiquing each individual shot and even speculating on his mood is all the rage.
But kind of the indie, underground debate that really is much better and far more impactful and important is about the first five players that Scott Brooks sends out nightly.
It’s something that’s become painfully obvious through the first three games of this series: Kendrick Perkins doesn’t match up well with the Mavericks and more specifically, Tyson Chandler.
He can’t run the floor with him. He can’t jump and challenge him above the rim. Perk’s greatest contribution of solo coverage on a post scoring threat isn’t as valuable against a guy like Chandler. Against Nene? Perk was as important as any player on the roster. Same thing could be said against Marc Gasol.
Now though, he’s become more of a liability. The Thunder have a problem scoring at the start of every first and third quarter. And while last night the biggest culprit was downright awful shooting, there could be a larger issue at hand. The always brilliant John Hollinger makes the case:
In the three games, Oklahoma City has been outscored 39-17 in the opening minutes of the first quarter until a reserve checks into the game. Overall, the deficit to begin each half is 57-31. Take those minutes away and the Thunder are comfortably outscoring Dallas.
To put a finer point on things, let’s replace the word “starters” with “Kendrick Perkins.” In his 82 minutes on the court, the Thunder have been outscored by a whopping 32 points. In his 62 minutes on the bench, the advantage has titled nearly as strong the other way: the Thunder are plus-23.
And those slow starts? They’ve magically ended at the exact second Perkins departed. Oklahoma City trailed by five in Game 1 before he went out, by nine in Game 2, and by 15 in this one — 29 points worth of deficits to make up the rest of the night. The Thunder overcame it in Game 2 by scoring on nine straight possessions right after Perk went to the bench; in the other two games, the hill was too big to climb.
Hollinger makes a great point as well: The Thunder are a much better team in the future with Kendrick Perkins at they’re starting center. Just now right now, in this series. Against the Mavs, Perk simply doesn’t have a place. Dallas doesn’t give Chandler the ball in the post. Basically, Perk’s greatest asset is just tangling himself up with Chandler as much as possible to either goad him into a technical or keep him off the offensive glass. That’s pretty much it.
(Keep in mind though, Perk has admitted he’s not close to 100 percent. He didn’t get to go through a training camp and more than anything, he appears to be a bit out of shape right now. The Perk we get next season will be much different from the Perk that’s lumbering around right now.)
Now Scott Brooks isn’t going to change things. I tried to explain why already. Before last night’s game he was asked about starting lineups and said there won’t be any changes this season, but over the offseason there will be discussion about it. Brooks isn’t dumb. He sees what we’re seeing. He understands the problem at hand. He’s just A) too stubborn to change and B) he doesn’t want to start tinkering in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. That’s not his philosophy and that doesn’t fit the message he’s preached at his team the last six months.
But Brooks acknowledged last night that there’s an offensive issue with the starting five because there are really only two scoring options on the floor. The weight falls almost exclusively on to Durant and Westbrook and not just that, but two players are actual offensive liabilities. The Thunder way is defense and that’s what Brooks wants his team to rely on. But good offense beats good defense and the Thabo Sefolosha and Perk aren’t adding anything offensively.
“Kevin and Russell have to really lead us and keep that scoreboard moving with that first unit and they don’t mind. They don’t mind that opportunity,” Brooks said. “Sometimes Russell gets a lot of hits on taking too many shots but he’s with a unit that plays very good defense that allows us to get stops and score in transition and Russell and Kevin have to lead that group in scoring.”
Here’s my issue with that though: Westbrook often talks about how he likes to use the first quarter to really get his teammates involved and distribute. He wants to set up early and then score later. But that doesn’t at all fit with the structure Brooks just laid out. The way Brooks has it, Westbrook needs to be in attack mode from the outset, taking shots alongside KD. That conflicts with Westbrook’s mindset, or at least the one he says he has. That’s a problem. Westbrook really only has two players to set up on the offensive end in KD and Serge Ibaka. Thabo and Perk can score, but they definitely aren’t at all proficient at it.
Brooks was pretty much universally praised for his bold, risky decision to let his bench finish out Game 2. He made a call and he was willing to stick by it. With a chance at the NBA Finals on the line here, he might have to make another difficult, risky call. There’s pretty much no way that he does and I’m not going to go as far to say that it could be the difference in winning this series and losing, but right now, the starting five is holding the Thunder back. The first eight minutes lost Game 3, there’s no denying that.
But if you can sit Russell Westbrook for an entire fourth quarter, why can’t you sit down Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha in the first?