Three-Pointers: Thunder wear down Wolves and surge to easy victory
By Rob Mahoney
The Oklahoma City Thunder outclassed the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night, and rode out the game’s momentum to a decisive 106-84 victory. Five Wolves players scored in double figures (including Nikola Pekovic, who scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds), but Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook powered the efficient Thunder offense to score at a rate of 119.1 points per 100 possessions against one of the better defensive teams in the league.
• Minnesota has run into a recurring problem by which its means of offensive initiation is so limited as to encumber all that the Wolves look to accomplish on that end. When the ball isn’t in the hands of Luke Ridnour, Ricky Rubio, or Alexey Shved, there’s very little hope of the possession actually taking a productive course. Even then, Ridnour and Shved in particular can be lulled into bad shots and worse turnovers, as was the case in the second half of this particular game when the Wolves’ offense had been completely worn down by repetitive trials against athletic, long-armed defenders. Rubio remains the source of Minnesota’s hope for improvement in this regard, and one can immediately see the benefit of his court vision as he probes the lane and challenges the discipline of defenders. He may not have the quickness necessary to beat his man outright, but Rubio’s creativity with the ball requires opponents to account for all kinds of playmaking possibilities. Once that precedent is established, Rubio typically benefits from a defense that’s trained on the pass rather than the cutter — a shift that only further empowers him to set up his teammates.
But for now, Rubio is restricted to 20 minutes a night or so and is clearly tentative as a scorer, both by the fundamental nature of his game and surely some lingering concern over his surgically repaired knee. That leaves Shved and Ridnour (and, when healthy, over-dribbling extraordinaire J.J. Barea) in control of more than their fair share of the offense in the meantime*, and subjects the Wolves to these droughts of even basic execution. The result: a team that turned the ball over on a fifth of its offensive possessions and posted an effective field goal percentage on-par with that of the Washington Wizards’ season average.
*Which isn’t to say that Shved and Ridnour had uniquely bad performances. They and all involved in the Wolves rotation are good players in the right context, but have simply been stretched too far in response to Minnesota’s shockingly frequent injuries.
• On the other side of the ball, the Wolves are a good defensive team in a general sense, but are a poorly suited to contain an opponent with such top-to-bottom athleticism. Once OKC settled into its offense, Durant and Westbrook were able to create separation with just a few dribbles, and force Minnesota to play catch-up on possession after possession. As persistent and smart as the Wolves defenders are, that’s a doomed effort; Durant and Westbrook will and did create good looks for themselves in those situations, and on Wednesday they also moved the ball to get open three-pointers (the Thunder shot 55 percent from beyond the arc) and looks at the rim. Knowing where to be defensively only matters when the defense can actually beat the offensive player to a certain spot, and in this case Minnesota’s defenders lacked the foot speed necessary to keep up with Oklahoma City’s focused offense. It took the Thunder a full quarter to identify their advantage, but once the Thunder crossed that threshold they never looked back; OKC started with a pure transition game, expanded to the secondary break, and eventually brought the full explosion of their offense into a half-court setting.
• If employed too regularly, defensive switching can be a self-destructive maneuver. Although teams often believe themselves to be guarding against vulnerabilities in their pick-and-roll defense by switching outright, a predictable switch is often too easily exploited to have a consistent payoff. Once an opponent becomes cognizant of the switching scheme, they typically seek out particular matchups and exploit them to no end.
Yet the Thunder are slowly improving as a selective-switching outfit, largely because Serge Ibaka is staying grounded more consistently and Kendrick Perkins is better at handling guards on the perimeter than most anticipate. We saw OKC’s switching success in action in the first quarter of this game, in which Minnesota was held to just 29 percent shooting overall. The aforementioned concerns about the Wolves’ offensive initiation played a part, but by switching so often the Thunder also dictated the terms of the game and forced their opponent into matchups that were clearly uncomfortable. Switching so deliberately basically leaves the offense no choice but to try to exploit perceived advantages, and yet Minnesota had a hard time isolating particular opponents to attack and re-directing their offense mid-stream. This isn’t to say that a case study against the league’s 21st-ranked offense should be sufficient for broader use, but it’s worth noting that the Thunder are flexible enough to switch against particular opponents for controlled stretches without getting completely burned.