Oklahoma City Thunder's defense against small lineups is still a concern

Christian Petersen

The Oklahoma City Thunder did just enough to win Game 2 against the Houston Rockets, but the game should be cause for concern for Thunder fans because of how much Oklahoma City struggled defending Houston's small lineup.

The Oklahoma City Thunder hung on in Game 2 against the Houston Rockets, taking a 2-0 series lead to Houston. They survived Houston's comeback, making the big plays down the stretch to secure the win. Not every playoff win is going to be easy, so the Thunder will take it.

That said, there are a few things I noticed with the Thunder's defense that are cause for concern as Oklahoma City moves forward.

The Rockets made a major lineup change, inserting Patrick Beverley into the starting five for Greg Smith. In doing so, they fully committed to playing small, something that teams have experienced a surprising degree of success doing against Oklahoma City. The end result was a solid offensive performance that could have been even better if not for a) the Rockets missing a number of open threes, and b) Aaron Brooks' unfortunate stint relieving Beverley in the third quarter.

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This is a problem the Thunder had in the 2012 Finals against Miami, and it'll be a problem again this year unless something changes. A possible conference finals matchup with Denver (provided they escape Golden State) awaits, and you know the Heat are lurking further down the line. At some point, a team better than the Rockets can exploit many of the holes that were found on Wednesday night.

Those issues start with Kendrick Perkins. As was evident last season, Perkins just isn't comfortable defending small units. He's too slow on the perimeter and makes poor decisions in pick-and-roll situations. The Rockets experienced success by getting Perkins outside the paint and either driving by him or using a roll man to open up a shot for someone else. This strategy worked especially well because Serge Ibaka, often in the game with Perkins, was guarding a three-point shooter, pulling him further away from the hoop.

This started at the very beginning of the game. Notice how Perkins jumping out to trap Jeremy Lin compromises the rest of the defense.

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The Thunder often switch screens, which explains why Ibaka is 35 feet from the hoop on James Harden. Lin will eventually feed Chandler Parsons on the right wing, and Perkins overreacts, charging at him and leaving himself and the basket vulnerable.

Screen_shot_2013-04-25_at_10

Here's the play in real time.


You'll notice a similar phenomenon here in the fourth quarter. The Rockets will run a double drag screen up top -- they had lots of success with this in the fourth quarter -- and Perkins will get caught on the wrong side of the play.

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Ibaka is stuck guarding Carlos Delfino, a dangerous shooter that already hit a couple big shots in the fourth quarter. Harden ultimately gets to his left hand and goes right to the rim.

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Here's the play in real time.


The Rockets also used Perkins' overhelping to open up shots for the roll man and even the three-point shooter. They weren't able to finish off these plays, but a better team will.

Here, Perkins steps up really high to contest what would be a mid-range jumper for Lin if he hangs back.

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Omer Asik will see Perkins' positioning and roll hard to the rim, drawing Kevin Durant off Parsons in the corner.

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This is part of the problem of having both bigs come up too high on the play. Durant must choose between Asik and Parsons, and he goes to Asik because it's the bigger threat. A corner three, though, is one of the league's most efficient shots, and while Parsons misses this time, he won't miss these often.

Screen_shot_2013-04-25_at_10

Here's the play in real time.


You saw the same thing late in the game. Perkins played this high pick and roll too tight here, and Asik responded by rolling down the lane.

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With both big men away from the rim, Durant must protect the basket again. He makes an unbelievable play to force Asik to miss the layup, but the Thunder can't rely on Durant to save the day consistently like this.

Screen_shot_2013-04-25_at_10

Here's the play in real time.


This is why it's tricky to play Perkins against small units. He inevitably must defend the biggest player on the floor, forcing Ibaka, one of the league's best shot-blockers, to defend away from the rim. When Perkins steps up too high, it leaves the rest of the defense in a compromising position.

***

One potential solution is to play Ibaka at center and Durant at power forward, but that has its issues too. While Ibaka is a tremendous shot-blocker and shot-alterer, his positioning is often poor. He is still at the point where he's relying too much on his athleticism, and against elite teams, that's not good enough.

Look at how deep he is underneath the hoop on these two plays.

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Both of those plays ended in layups and could have been prevented if Ibaka was more aware and slid in to position himself in front of Harden and Parsons before they started their drives.

Ibaka also has a bad habit of biting on fakes and other misdirection, putting himself further out of position. He was caught on the wrong side of three pick and rolls during the fourth quarter. He recovered to block the shot on one of them, but yielded open looks on the other two.

Here, he gets caught on Harden's right even though it's become clear that Harden is going left.

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Harden ultimately gets middle, and because Ibaka is out of position, Durant must help off Parsons wide open in the corner. Parsons again misses the open look, but that's not a shot you want to surrender.

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Here's the play in real time.


Later, Ibaka strays too far to the left wing, allowing Beverley to get right and create space for a floater that he makes.

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Here's that play in real time.


Ibaka at the 5 makes sense in theory, and it may be Scott Brooks' best of a bunch of shaky options because of Ibaka's shot-blocking, but I understand why the Thunder head coach gets nervous when going to this lineup. Positioning-wise, Ibaka still has a long way to go.

***

What's the solution, then? It depends on how you look at it.

Schematically, the Thunder need their bigs to stop pressuring the ball so much. I know it goes against the team's defensive ethos, but the easiest way to turn Perkins into even more of a liability is to force him to defend in space far away from the basket. The Thunder may surrender some open mid-range jumpers, but that's the tradeoff they have to accept. Imploring Ibaka to think more about stopping a play before it happens rather than just reacting to it would be nice, too.

But the Thunder -- and I know this is a broken record to some -- should also consider playing Nick Collison more. Collison has the positional chops to avoid getting out of position like Ibaka, and he has the lateral quickness to be a bit more effective defending a guard in space like Perkins. A closing duo of Ibaka and Collison is probably Brooks' best bet at this point.

Regardless, a solution must be found. There are too many good teams that are too good playing small for Oklahoma City to continue doing what they're currently doing.

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