There are two sobering, uneasy offensive stats from Game 3 against the Grizzlies. And they’re not Kevin Durant’s 10-27 shooting and Russell Westbrook’s 9-26 shooting.
Per SportVU, the Thunder had 230 total passes in Game 3, to the Grizzlies’ 367. And in the fourth quarter alone, the Thunder had 22 possessions, and 11 total passes. In fact, 14 of their 22 possessions there wasn’t a single pass. (Tip of the hat to good buddy Tom Haberstroh, by the way.) As a team, the Thunder produced 13 total assists, and Westbrook and Durant combined to attempt 53 of the team’s 87 shots. The spacing was bad, the ball movement was terrible and the offensive completely stalled.
In Game 1, the Thunder had 239 passes. Game 2, 261. And again, 230 in Game 3, which included five extra minutes of overtime.
Here’s what disturbs me, though: That’s pretty normal. For example, two of the Thunder’s better wins at the end of the regular season, they had 279 passes against the Clippers, and just 226 against the Spurs. (SportVU doesn’t provide full season team stats, but after looking through about 15 box scores, the Thunder averaged about 240 passes a game in those. But man, wouldn’t it be nice to know how many they average with and without Westbrook?)
In the four regular season games against the Grizzlies, the Thunder averaged 265 passes a game. Their low was 253 in the 86-77 win on Feb. 3, and their high was 289 in the 116-100 win on Dec. 11. So the ball movement was slightly better in the regular season, but not by much. Like I said last night, this is who the Thunder are. An isolation heavy team that tries to overwhelm you with ability. There isn’t much nuance to it. They preach moving the ball and playing with trust, but when it comes down to it, it’s the Russ and KD show, and they live and die by it. More often than not though, they live, and live well.
But against the teeth of that swarming Memphis defense? It’s not working. For two reasons: 1) Westbrook and Durant aren’t shooting the ball well at all and 2) there isn’t any trust whatsoever in the pieces behind that. Serge Ibaka, who is quietly a cornerstone of the Thunder’s offense with the spacing he provides at the elbows, isn’t involved. He took 10 shots in Game 3, and only one in the final 17 minutes of game action.
Again, though, this isn’t unusual. In the four games against the Grizzlies in the regular season, Ibaka averaged 55.2 touches a game. In the three games so far in this series, he’s averaging 53.4 On the season, Ibaka averages 49.8 touches a game.
In the three games, Westbrook is averaging 49.0 passes a game, Durant is averaging 39.7. The regular season, Westbrook averaged 48.3, Durant averaged 38.9.
So here’s my point with all of this: What you’re seeing from the Thunder right now is simply who they are. They aren’t doing anything differently offensively, other than the fact they can’t make anything, and the Grizzlies have them scouted to perfection. The Grizzlies know every Thunder set and the few counters and options off those sets. If the Thunder are going to fix this, it’s too late to really adjust anything dramatically. They’re built to play exactly as they are, except they have to a) defend and b) make shots.
I know there’s a lot of focus on the Thunder’s jumpshooting and all the 3s they’ve taken. Don’t disagree with those gripes. Because that’s bad. But here’s the thing: The Thunder have been taking bad shots for years, particularly Russell Westbrook. And this is where I think the blood is on the hands of Scott Brooks. Because one of two things is happening. Either 1) Brooks is telling Westbrook (and Durant to some degree) that those shots are bad and they shouldn’t take them, but they don’t respect or listen to him or 2) Brooks isn’t telling them to not take those shots. I’m pretty sure the answer to this is No. 2, which is why I think you see the late game 3-point heaves from Westbrook and Durant. There just isn’t any offensive discipline, because it hasn’t been coached into them.
But at the same time, that’s just always been the Thunder way. I’ve often thought that the minimalist offense from Brooks has been subtly genius because it allows his two best players to just crush opponents with free-flowing talent. Instead of neutralizing his own players by inserting them into the confines of an over-structured offensive system, Westbrook and Durant are free to roam. It’s hard to argue with the results, too. No. 2 in defense the last two seasons, and No. 7 this season, one in which Westbrook missed 36 games.
Problem with that approach is, there’s no backup plan to your best players not playing well. Except for hoping your defense can bail you out. And this is also why so many feel like Brooks has taken this team as far as he can, having developed young players wonderfully into stars, but it’s time for someone with a fresh approach to try and take them to another level. That very well could be the case, but I’m not willing to go that far quite yet. I at least want to see Game 4 first.
So again, there’s no “fixing” the Thunder’s offensive problem right now. Because saying things like “trust the pass,” and “move the ball” and “space the floor,” aren’t things they’ve done consistently all season. They’ve gotten drunk on their own success, success that’s come almost too easy for them by virtue of just being better than most every team they play. This plan still could work, because we all know Westbrook and Durant are capable of playing much, much better than they have. But with the Grizzlies dug in, and seemingly a step ahead of everything the Thunder are doing, it’s hard to guarantee that.