Mavericks Vs. Thunder, Game 2 Adjustments: Push Dirk Nowitzki Off His Spots, Move Ball Against Zone

By Sebastian Pruiti

Despite feeling like a blowout from the start, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to keep Game 1 close and actually had a chance to cut the lead to five points late in the fourth quarter. Despite Dirk Nowitzki going crazy, the Thunder still had a chance to win the game, meaning they can be competitive in game two if they make a few adjustments on both sides of the basketball.

Offense: More Ball Movement Against The Zone

In the first half, the Dallas Mavericks came out and played zone six possessions in the first half, and they were able to get stops every single time.  These stops were mostly self-inflicted as the Thunder really struggled moving the basketball around when facing the Mavericks' zone:

This is the first possession where the Mavericks threw the zone at the Thunder, and they just didn't look prepared for it.  You have guys standing around and pointing, trying to figure out what to do with the basketball.  Eventually, after trying to penetrate, Kevin Durant is forced to kick it out to Russell Westbrook on the wing.  The defense drops off of him, and Westbrook settles for the jumper.

The next possession, Westbrook tries to penetrate without making a pass or working the ball around first.  Because there is no passes or no ball movement, the defense is still set in their initial formation, so when Westbrook drives, the defense is able to load up, keep Westbrook from getting to the rim, and force him into a turnover.

On this possession, the Thunder try to screen one of the top defenders on the zone and Eric Maynor uses the screen.  However, instead of probing the defense and trying to get the basketball into the middle of the lane, he pulls up off of the dribble, missing the jumper.

This time, the Thunder actually do a decent job with their ball movement.  Westbrook brings up the basketball, kicks it to the wing, cuts through to the opposite wing as the ball comes back to him.  However, after that, Westbrook makes the catch and just takes a bunch of dribbles, allowing the defense to recover and get set once again.  After three crossovers, Westbrook takes a fall away jumper from the three-point line.

Why is ball movement so important?  Because after a few passes, you loosen up the defense, and the middle of the zone opens up.  The Thunder were able to get the basketball to the middle once, but Nick Collison traveled instead of going up with the jumper:

Here, the Thunder zip the basketball around from one side to the other, opening up the middle.  This is important, because the middle of the paint is the underbelly of the zone, and if you can get the basketball there consistently, you will eventually have success.

The Thunder need to be ready for the Mavericks' zone going into Game 2 (because it is going to be coming), and when they see it, they need to get the ball moving and work the ball into the middle.

Defense: Get Nowitzki Off His Spots

Stats, LLC has a great NBA blog where they use a lot of there technology to visualize things you aren't used to being able to see.  In their post about game one of the Western Conference Finals, they looked at where Nowitzki made his first touch, and visualized it next to Nowitzki's shot chart:

Dirk1_medium

via sportvuhoops.stats.com

According to STATS, of Dirk’s 83 touches in Game 1, 43 (51.8 percent) were of the zero-dribble variety, meaning that he was able to catch, face up, and either shoot or pass without taking a dribble.  The image above and that stat is a pretty good indicator that Nowitzki had it way too easy in terms of being able to make the catch, and once he did make the catch, he had the Thunder defense at his mercy:

Part of what makes Nowitzki so tough in these situations is that normally, if you make a power forward catch it where Dirk is catching the ball, that is a win for the defense, as it isn't normal post position.  However, with Nowitzki, this is where he wants to catch the ball.  If the Thunder want to make Nowitzki's catch tougher, they need to do two things.  One, try to push him out to the three-point line before the pass is made.  This is where the most contact is allowed, and though things were called tightly in Game 1, it shouldn't be that way in Game 2.  When Nowitzki sets up in his spot, Serge Ibaka and Collison need to continue to try and ride him out farther away from the rim.  Also, the Thunder need to pressure the ball handler more.  

Most of these entries are made by Jason Kidd, yet instead of playing up on him and making the entry pass harder, his defender is usually playing off of him, as if they are worried about Kidd driving by.  If the Thunder pressure up, especially when Westbrook is covering Kidd, it makes the pass harder, makes Kidd take more time to throw the pass, and gives Nowitzki's defender more time to try and get Dirk off of the spot.  

If the Thunder are able to force Nowitzki to make his catches a little bit further out than he wants, they might have a better chance to stop him and steal Game 2

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