Wake Up Call: Heroball Don’t Win Championships

In game two of the Thunder-Jazz series on Wednesday night, with six and a half minutes remaining, the score was tied 87-87. At the risk of making your eyes bleed, I’d like to quickly recap how the next 18 offensive possessions played out. Bear with me.

  1. 6:27 – Russell Westbrook dribbles the ball up in semi-transition and kicks out for an immediate Carmelo Anthony three-point shot three seconds into the shot clock. It hits backboard before rim.
  2. 6:24 – Jerami Grant grabs the offensive rebound but his out-of-control putback attempt is deflected away by Rudy Gobert.
  3. 6:18 – Grant collects the offensive rebound once again and proceeds to throw the ball to the other team.
  4. 5:54 – Westbrook receives a quick pick on the left wing from Steven Adams, penetrates and kicks to Paul George, who goes one on one with Donovan Mitchell and settles for a heavily-contested midrange pullup. It rims out.
  5. 5:19 – George sideline-inbounds to Adams at the top of the key, who immediately dumps the ball to Westbrook on a wing islation. He takes several dribbles attempting to back down his defender before launching a contested fallaway 11-footer that clangs against the back rim.
  6. 4:46 – Westbrook dribbles up on the left wing and gets a ball screen from Anthony (except it bears reminding that Anthony never ever makes contact with the defender as he “sets” a ball screen). Westbrook hits Anthony on the pop, which turns into a ball-stopping isolation. Final result: A contested, off-balance runner from Anthony that’s lucky to draw iron.
  7. 4:27 – George sideline-inbounds to Russ at the top of the key, who snakes around an Adams ball screen before drawing both defenders and lobbing the ball up for an alley-oop to Adams. A score!
  8. 4:02 – Westbrook dribbles up, receives a quick middle ball screen from Adams again and hits Big Kiwi on the roll again. He converts again. Score update: Jazz 92, Thunder 91
  9. 3:32 – Westbrook dribbles up into another Adams pick-and-roll, but this time pulls up for a contested 20-footer. Brick.
  10. 3:13 – Westbrook dribbles past his defender, kicks to Anthony, who miraculously passes up the shot to reverse the ball to George. PG gets the same right ball screen that Westbrook got on the previous possession and takes the same contested 20-footer. Same result.
  11. 2:48 – Westbrook dribbles quickly up the floor, gets a high pick from Grant and charges in for a wild runner that hits the backboard and nothing else.
  12. 2:25 – Westbrook takes off in transition and is fouled on his way to the rim. He makes both free throws.
  13. 2:03 – Westbrook dribbles around for a while, gets another non-contact ball screen from Anthony, picks up his dribble and gives the ball to George near mid-court. Reset. George dribbles around for a while before passing back to Westbrook, who isolated and gets past his defender. Help comes over to cover his drive and he finds Grant in the corner for a wide open three. He misses.
  14. 1:33 – Westbrook runs the same quick-pick with Grant, but gets caught in the air and has to awkwardly pass to Corey Brewer, who immediately kicks it back out to Grant. Grant isolates Gobert and scores past him on a reverse layup.
  15. 1:04 – George isolates in semi-transition, tries to shovel-pass to Grant but misses and the ball bounces out to Westbrook, who swings it quickly to Anthony. You know what happens next. Clang.
  16. 0:28 – Westbrook dribbles up and drops a pass back to Anthony from 27 feet. Clang.
  17. 0:21 – George sideline-inbounds to Russ, sets him a little rub-screen and then runs for the hills without looking back. Westbrook tries to hit him on the pop, but George isn’t looking. By the time he gets the ball he’s swallowed up, and the desperation three airballs.
  18. 0:10 – Westbrook dribbles up and passes to George on the right wing who fires on final three. Nope.

18 possessions. Three made field goals. 16 missed field goals. One turnover. One trip to the foul line. Ouch.

There a few major takeaways to discuss. Let’s start with the passing. If you exclude outlet passes and inbounds passes, basically all the passes players were required to make, there were 18 total passes in the final 18 possessions of offense. That’s awful. When you take away the three passes that came out of desperation and the one from PG that missed its intended target, it’s less than one effective pass per possession in the final six and half minutes in the game.

The Thunder has never, in the history of the franchise, run flowing motion offense. They’ve never duplicated or even attempted the Spurs’ “summertime” passing. And Thunder fans have been conditioned to think we shouldn’t ever expect it. We’ve often heard lines like “they’re never going to be that way” or “that’s just not who they are.” In year’s past, it’s never really mattered. The offense was high powered anyways. Even last year, the world learned that a Russ-Adams pick-and-roll can be a weapon of mass destruction.

But these numbers reinforce the eye test. What is the Thunder’s crunch time offense? It’s pure heroball. How’s that working out?

Heroball doesn’t just mean isolation or single pick and roll action. The problem runs deeper, into how those actions are being set up. Only one time in those 18 possessions was the ball reversed from one side of the floor to the other. There was never any movement. Instead, the isolating offense player faced five sets of eyes from the defense. Each pick and roll was met with steady help defense because the defenders are never forced to rotate. It’s one or two-on-five. The numbers don’t add up.

Speaking of numbers that don’t add up, let’s look at the shot distribution. There’s no question in the final minutes of a close playoff game who the two players are on the Thunder who you’d expect to take the most shots. Instead, Melo shot four times and Grant shot three times. Russ shot just three times (plus his one trip to the FT line). If you throw out PG’s two heaves at the end of the game when the outcome was out of reach, he only had two other shots. Sure, some credit goes to the Jazz defense for denying PG and Russ off the ball, and sending help when they’re on the ball. Melo and Grant were the open players, that’s fair. I hear you.

However, there are ways to free players up and they’re not that complicated. All it takes is some off-ball screening and ball rotation. Passing, cutting. Getting the defense moving and having to think. Apparently it’s not as obvious as it sounds considering the Thunder offense has mistaken “stand around and watch” with “spotting up and spacing the floor.” The OK3 going 0-fer in the fourth quarter isn’t too much of a surprise when you look at it that way.

The photo below isn’t even a criticism of Carmelo Anthony. Look at the other players on the floor. Russ is holding his shorts, several feet behind the three-point line. Same with PG, he’s not a scoring threat. As Melo jab-steps (and jab-steps and jab-steps) and drives (slowly) to the rim, nobody moves a muscle. For other possessions, substitute the players into different spots, rinse, repeat.

The last red flag is how quickly the shots are coming, once again a symptom of the simplistic actions. Here are the first seven shots of our sequence above, when the game still had a single-possession margin, listed by how many seconds into the shot clock they came: 3, 7, 6, 15! (Melo’s hold-it ISO), 6, 7, 8. With the score tied or just a two-point deficit, and no need to rush, the team was basically playing seven-seconds-or-less offense. Why? Well, if the best and only action is going to be an isolation or a high screen, I guess there’s really no reason to wait.

Then again, having to defend hard for 15-20 seconds and then only getting a few seconds to catch your breath on offense wears on a team. Westbrook is holding his shorts in the photo above because he needs to catch his breath. On the flip side, only needing to defend for six seconds per possession on defense sure seemed to do wonders for Donovan Mitchell’s legs on offense in the fourth quarter.

The Thunder is a more talented team than the Jazz, straight up. OKC should win this playoff series. But if the Thunder doesn’t learn to move on offense, to actually have an offense in crunch time, the team is in real danger.

‘Cause Heroball don’t win championships.