2013 NBA Finals: An OKC Thunder expert's perspective on Spurs vs Heat

Marc Serota

J.A. Sherman, editor of WTLC, stops by Pounding the Rock to provide some insight on the keys for the Spurs to take down the Heat.

Greetings, I'm the man they call Sherman over at Welcome to Loud City. You may remember me from my greatest hits album, which includes my dangling a Derek Fisher voodoo doll in front of Mr. Wilco, my 5-part series with DrumsIntheDeep, and possibly my studio backup-mandolin work on "Stonehenge." I was asked to give the Thunder's perspective on the two Finalists, both of whom OKC knows all too well.

Here we go, an objective analysis of the Spurs vs the Heat, also subtitled, "How the good guys in silver and black can defeat the dastardly Khan Noonien Singh."*

(*If that villain analogy, doesn't work for you, feel free to replace it with one of your own choosing.)

As a Thunder guy, I have two general perspectives to offer: 1) why the Thunder beat the Spurs last year; and 2) why the Thunder could not beat the Heat last year. The first point speaks both to what a hyper-athletic team can do against the Spurs while noting what the Spurs did incorrectly in their eventual demise, while the second point speaks to the Thunder's failings against an equally athletic team and why that should not matter as much this time around. Let us take each point in kind.

***

1) Why the Thunder beat the Spurs last year

Last year's Spurs offense was a marvel to behold from afar, though not much fun when the Thunder were trying to stop it during the regular season. There were points during those regular season games and the first two games of their Western Conference Finals where I came to the conclusion that no matter what the Thunder tried to do offensively (and they were very good offensively), the Spurs could do it better.

The reason why I became so enamored by how the Spurs played offense as compared to OKC's is because it was like watching the difference between a high school algebra course and Ender's Game Theory. The Thunder's offense was built on a basic premise - a defense, even a great defense, cannot defend 3 elite athletic scorers all at the same time. However, as Game 2 had proven, even that premise might not be enough against the Spurs' efficiency. Down 0-2 returning to OKC, my realistic hope was that the Thunder's best bet was to be able to string this to 5 games.

So what happened?

The Thunder figured out that in order to tip the scales, they had to come up with a defensive solution that slightly but materially slowed down the Spurs' attack while not hindering their own. The best defense against the Spurs is to eliminate Tony Parker from the equation, and the Thunder did this by putting the long-armed defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha on him and attacking Parker BEFORE Parker could attack the defense. The results were immediate, as Parker went from the best player on the court to a PG who became turnover-prone and could no longer sustain his own offense for the full course of a game. Without Parker's linear attack that forces defenses to collapse, which in turn leaves shooters open, the Spurs lost the #1 catalyst in their ability to play fast without rushing anything. Furthermore, the Thunder were able to eliminate Parker without losing anything from their primary scorers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. This defensive shift was just enough to tip the scales and allow the Thunder's rudimentary offense of elite 1-on-1 scorers to catch and surpass the Spurs.

The problem the Spurs are going to have is that the Heat can do both of those things that the Thunder did - they can challenge Parker with the aggressive defense and they have 3 elite-level athletic scorers in LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Furthermore, the Heat have in LeBron a vastly superior version of Sefolosha, a guy who has both instincts and talent that can shut down opponents from Derrick Rose to Kevin Durant.

Here are the two caveats. The first is that while LeBron can do a good job for stretches staying in front of Parker, he cannot do it the whole game and he DEFINITELY cannot do it when Parker is running off the ball. When Sefolosha locked Parker up at the point of attack, the Spurs did a poor job the rest of the series taking Parker off the ball to turn him into a dangerous cutter who had the quickness and smarts to beat the Thunder's switch-everything defensive scheme. Also, if LeBron is guarding Parker, that means he is not guarding somebody else, thereby opening up other scoring opportunities for the likes of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. If LeBron is covering Parker, the Spurs will recognize this immediately and switch their offensive point of attack to move LeBron away from the primary part of the play.

The second caveat is that what I just said about Wade and Bosh is not necessarily true anymore. Bosh is still a very good mid-range shooter, but he has been hobbled in the playoffs and was less than mediocre against the Pacers. If he cannot hit those jumpers, then the Heat's fallback plan is to hope that Udonis Haslem can step in and fill this role. As for Wade, he is clearly injured and has very little explosiveness around the rim, especially when challenged. Ergo, the Heat are not the same athletic team we have seen all season long, and the Spurs should treat them as such. Treat the non-LeBron guys as shot-takers, not shot-creators.

2) Why the Thunder could not beat the Heat last year (and would not have this year)

The Thunder entered the NBA Finals last season with many believing they could take down the Heat. They had home court advantage, had just taken down the Spurs, and the Thunder's quartet of Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden seemed to trump the Heat triumvirate of James, Wade, and Bosh.

Instead, what we got were 4 closely contested games where the Heat made all of the game-deciding plays while the Thunder made none of them. The close nature of the outcome obscures the fact that the Heat too were playing a different kind of game than the Thunder, and OKC demonstrated against the Grizzlies that they never really graduated past that point. Unlike the way the Spurs and the Heat preached, practiced, and performed while shorthanded throughout the season (reliant on not just LeBron and Parker but the entire system in place) OKC had no real system upon which to fall back and the results were disastrous.

One thing the Pacers series showed us is that to beat the Heat, you have to have an actual plan in place where comparative advantages are recognized and exploited. When those advantages are marginalized through the Heat's adjustments, you move to plan B, then C, then back to A. Far too often the Thunder played a reactionary game, both on offense and on defense, and that meant they were the pursuers rather than the dictators on both ends of the court. The Heat know how to dictate this type of action and will do so unless the other team pushes back.

The Thunder never learned how to adjust and push back, but adjustment is what defines the Spurs experience. The entirety of Tim Duncan's career has been about how he has adjusted to fit whatever role is necessary amidst the changing roster in order to deal with the opposition. Against the Grizzlies, his offensive game expanded and contracted based on how the Grizzlies defense was playing Parker. Against the Heat, I expect we will see more of the same.

3) What the Heat and Spurs will do against each other

One of the staples of the Heat defense is the concurrence of aggressive trapping on the strong side of the court while relying on discipline and athleticism on the weak side. What the Pacers were never able to fully optimize however was weak side passing. They'd rotate out of the strong side traps and then use the weak side to establish entry to the post. This was an effective strategy, but if they could not rotate, the play was DOA. The Spurs by contrast thrive on the weak side action, particularly running back door. When Parker gets hit with aggressive traps, I will look for Duncan to be the guy that comes out to the high post to receive the pass, not another guard. By Duncan coming out high, it will pull the Heat defenders away far enough from the rim to open up all sorts of weak side passing lanes to set up Ginobili, Green, and Tiago Splitter to either roll to the rim or fade to the 3-point line. The Heat's aggressive trapping is ripe to be broken, but only by a big man smart enough and quick enough to make the right passing decisions.

On the other side of the court, the Heat's offense runs similarly to the Spurs. However, as noted above, there is a major difference in it in these playoffs because Wade and Bosh are not healthy. They are not getting their drives to the rim, and as such a more conservative defense that packs the paint while not losing sight of the Heat's 3-point specialists has been enough to drastically reduce their efficiency. The numbers don't lie - even in the Heat's routs in the ECF, the Pacers still did a great job defending. With the exception of 2 or 3 quarters, Miami never got into the kind of runs that bury teams. This is by virtue of both the fact that Miami's play-making is reduced and the Pacers never over-committed themselves.

4) The trump card

Lastly, there is LeBron. This video clip where he talks about his growth is positive for him and terror for everyone else:

A great statement and would seem to underscore every reason why LeBron is one of the all-time greats in full command of his game. This quote is marvelous:

"You can't dare me to do anything that I don't want to do."

Perhaps in this vote of self-assurance lies the element of weakness. As we've seen the Spurs do against the likes of Durant and Westbrook, the Spurs don't dare those guys to do something they don't want to do. Instead, they make them think that the thing they WANT to do is the BEST thing for them to do. If what they want to do is good but not the best thing, Popovich is willing to concede it knowing that the better option not only goes unused but remains hidden. LeBron is going to get his 30, and that's really all there is to it. It is important to remember though, as we learned last season against the Thunder and this one, that what LeBron really wants to do is pass the ball. By passing the ball, he not only makes everything easier on his teammates, but himself as well. In these playoffs however, that has not been the case. Wade is hurt, Bosh is off, and the Heat's "five-out" attack has been stunted. LeBron's passing, previously the best option, might not be so this time around.

This is the way the Spurs' next level defense has won in the playoffs this year. Gone are the days of, "Take away the thing the other guy wants to do," and is replaced by, "Cede the sub-optimal thing in exchange their best option." In doing so, the Spurs have mastered three completely different teams in these playoffs and have shown that they have the smarts and competency to continue the course.

***

The task is difficult but not insurmountable. The games will be close and LeBron will have his way at times, but if the Spurs can apply their comparative advantages, cut the Heat's percentages, and exploit the low post the way the Pacers did, perhaps the Heat's reign can be broken. Not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5...

And so he spoke. And so he spoke.

***

Many thanks to J.R. Wilco and PtR for giving me the space to share some Thunder thoughts. Best of luck in Game 1 tonight!

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