Posted February 07, 2013

Three-Pointers: Thunder wallop Warriors

Golden State Warriors, Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder, Stephen Curry
russell-westbrook-dunk

The Warriors’ defense watches Russell Westbrook soar for two of his 22 points. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Rob Mahoney

The Warriors generally play smart and aesthetically satisfying basketball, but they struggled to keep pace with the Thunder on Wednesday in the absence of Jarrett Jack (shoulder injury) and Andrew Bogut (who rested on the second night of a back-to-back in his return from ankle surgery). A one-sided first quarter — in which Oklahoma City outscored Golden State 34-22 — set the pace for the entire game, resulting in an oddly uncompetitive contest between two of the Western Conference’s finest teams. The Thunder used their length and talent to create easily accessible points of advantage, rolling 119-98 to record back-to-back victories for the first time since Jan. 18.

• Performances like these should be the most harrowing to future Thunder opponents. Russell Westbrook (22 points, five assists) was able to get where he needed to go off the dribble and Kevin Durant (25 points, seven rebounds, four assists) was his typically prolific self, but this was ultimately a pretty sloppy performance from the first unit that still had Oklahoma City in control from opening tip to final buzzer. Field-goal percentage isn’t everything; there were some tremendous individual plays and enough defensive breakdowns for OKC to score effectively, but for the most part the Thunder’s top lineups were without the consistency that successful execution in a half-court setting typically demands.

Along with the individual efforts of Durant, Westbrook, and Kevin Martin (21 points, four assists), the redemption of the Thunder’s slightly clumsy offense can largely be traced to three factors: consistent ball movement, transition opportunism and productive offensive rebounding. The first of those things may be somewhat unexpected given the generally awkward tenor of some of OKC’s workings, but the Thunder really did make an effort to move the ball whenever possible and weren’t often bogged down by overdribbling. Westbrook and Durant did a fine job of creating without attempting to do too much off the bounce, and the result was an infectious commitment to passing that buoyed the Thunder’s efficiency.

The transition success should come as no surprise, seeing as a travel delay complicated the Warriors’ trip — they didn’t arrive at the hotel in Oklahoma City until 4:30 a.m. after losing in Houston 140-109 the night before — and Golden State’s 19 turnovers helped trigger the Thunder’s running game. The offensive rebounding, too, isn’t entirely out of character. Though OKC is just average in offensive rebounding rate, Synergy Sports Technology ranks the Thunder at a slightly better 13th in points generated per play on the scoring opportunities created by offensive rebounds. That second-chance success was especially prevalent on Wednesday, as the Thunder turned 10 offensive boards into 16 bonus points. That high rate of conversion is mostly a testament to the resourceful work of Serge Ibaka, who continues to impress with his consistent capitalization on unplanned shot attempts.

All in all, the Thunder made it work. It wasn’t always pretty and their methods weren’t always sound, but smart hustle, good intentions and a healthy dose of star power were enough to build a big win on an off night.

• Golden State, though, played a pretty active part in their own demise — in part because it took the Warriors entirely too long to adapt to the pressure that the Thunder were putting on Stephen Curry (who finished with 14 points on 5-of-20 shooting and committed six turnovers to go with 11 assists). In the first half, an unoccupied Thunder big man doubled up the coverage on Curry whenever prudent, and that simple effort disrupted much of Golden State’s offense at the point of initiation. Only in the second half did Curry recognize those doubles early enough to make a preemptive pass out to David Lee — a strategy that helped stabilize the Warriors’ offensive flow and earned Lee six assists on the night.

This is nothing new for the Warriors. Coach Mark Jackson has wisely structured his offense to work through Curry, Lee and Jack (who, again, did not play Wednesday), and their joint facilitation can only prop up the offense as long as each of the three creators is willing to share the load. Curry was simply holding on to the ball for a bit too long for the Warriors to really get their offense going, and that initial reluctance (compounded by the turnover woes and the problems that Oklahoma City’s length was causing for Golden State on its attempts to attack the basket) was enough to unsettle a delicate creative balance.

• One thing to keep an eye on with the Thunder going forward: Kevin Martin’s easily distracted off-ball defense. Martin’s reputation as a shaky individual defender goes without saying at this point, and his slight frame and poor fundamentals do him no favors when attempting to lock down an opponent. But that’s a problem against which the Thunder can protect themselves. Coach Scott Brooks typically matches up Martin with the least intimidating perimeter threat possible, mitigating some of the vulnerability that his presence on the court creates.

But where Martin really struggles — and where Brooks can’t completely hide Martin’s weaknesses — is in his defense on cuts and curls. Martin’s limitations were on full display in the fourth quarter Wednesday, as Jackson cued a few set Warriors plays designed to run Klay Thompson — Martin’s mark — around multiple screens. At that point, Martin was a goner. That’s a challenge enough for any perimeter defender, but Martin’s lack of strength makes him especially vulnerable to getting wiped out on a single pick, much less multiple, prescribed picks based on designed play action. Thompson (19 points on 8-of-16 shooting) was able to get some wide-open looks as a result of Martin’s dying on the screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see smart opponents (the Spurs in particular) replicate those kinds of actions whenever Martin is on the floor come playoff time.

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