Through the first month of the season, the Thunder have been somewhere between pretty good and really, really good. They’re 12-3, undefeated at home and rank in the top tier in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The starters have been good, the bench has been good, the coaching has been good. It’s all been good.
Except there’s one area that they’ve been really bad.
On the season, the Thunder have won only three of their 15 opening tips, and overall, are just 5-23, including two overtimes and in-game tie-ups.
That’s a weird stat to pay attention to and a minor detail in the game, I realize. But it’s significant enough for me to have noticed it, and thereby feel like asking Scott Brooks about it. He’s noticed it too, and made a point to try and correct it recently.
“I’m looking at you, because we’ve been doing a few things, but I don’t feel like I should discuss them with you right now,” Brooks said after he stared at me for an awkward amount of time. “Have you been in our meetings or our practices?
“But we don’t win ’em, there’s no question,” he said. “It’s something we’ve talked about and we’re trying to [improve]. We want to win the tap.”
How important is a jump ball to begin a game, though? It’s not like football where often times, deferring to the second half is a big strategic advantage. Both teams get equal possessions regardless of who wins it, but Brooks made a great point: If you win the tap, you get the ball to start the fourth quarter. Which if you can grab a 2-for-1 to end the third quarter and then start the fourth with the ball, you could potentially put together a 9-0 run with your opponent only having had one possession in a critical part of the game.
“I want to get it,” Brooks said. “I want the opportunity to hit a 3 to end the third and get the ball [to start the fourth] and hit another 3 and have a 6-0 run right there.”
The Thunder go with Serge Ibaka as their primary jumper. Last season, OKC was solid, but not great at tip-off, going 38-44 on opening taps. Obviously the process of picking your jumper isn’t complicated. Pick a tall guy that can jump, pretty much.
“[If] you’re tall helps. But you better be able to play because you have to start that tall guy,” Brooks said about how the jumper is chosen. Which I think was unintentionally a nod to Hasheem Thabeet. “But tall and athletic. Serge is our logical choice. Kevin’s not bad. But I think Serge gives us our best chance.”
Brooks didn’t want to say how the Thunder worked on it — “We’re trying to figure out some ways we can improve that, I’ll just leave it at that,” he said — but Nick Collison said while it’s kind of a hard thing to practice, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances.
“You can definitely practice where everyone lines up and like holding a guy off and deciding where a guy is going to tip the ball,” Collison said. “The timing of it is hard because the toss is different every time. And sometimes guys steal them on the way up, sometimes they throw them to one side. It’s kind of a random thing that’s hard to recreate. But what he wants to do is get the ball to start to get the fourth quarter.”
That’s the thing — often times the toss is decided because of human error. The official is trying to toss it evenly, but the ball can creep over to one guy’s side, making it much easier to win it. An extreme example, but check out this one from a postseason game last year.
“There’s some interesting tosses. There are some very interesting tosses,” Brooks said. “Which plays a big role.”
So, how about a new way of doing it? Alternating possession arrow like in college and high school?
“I don’t like alternating possession. It’s good the way it is,” Collison said. “But it’d be great if the tosses were [consistent]. And not let guys steal them. Because then what happens, I’ve had this, is both guys try to steal it and don’t and then the ball lands and the player lands and they both just hit it. So I think if everybody really watched the ball and timed it and tried to get it at its highest point, it’d be a lot better.”
Berry Tramel floated the idea of dropping the ball like a hockey face-off, which would be fun, but that would probably just create a scrum and another jump ball. I like it the way it is, but if there was going to be a change, my idea is to just go pick-up style rules and have a player on whichever side the tie-up happened shoot a dead-ball uncontested 3 for possession. And at the beginning of the game, the home team picks a player to shoot a 3 for the ball. That’d be kind of fun in a pressure-packed fourth quarter for someone to have to knock down a 3 to win possession, right?
Since I asked Brooks about it and he said they’d worked on it, they’ve gone 1-2 on jumps, winning the opening tap against the Warriors (Andrew Bogut got busted for stealing it on the way up), losing the one in overtime, and losing the opening jump against the Timberwolves. So whatever adjustment he made hasn’t quite paid off quite yet. Still, while the Thunder are 3-12 on opening tips, they’re 12-3 in the win-loss column, which is kind of all that matters.
“It’s not a huge deal,” Collison said, “but you know what it is, it’s good to be at a place as a team where you’re worried about that stuff.”