Yesterday I wrote about how the Heat have created a small-ball lineup that can defend other small-ball units with ease. The issue with that lineup, as noted, is that it cannot defend bigger players, such as Kevin Love. What we are seeing from the Thunder, though, is they have a big lineup that can defend small-ball. That is crucial.
First, let’s examine how this lineup was discovered. In the first two games of the Spurs-Thunder series, LaMarcus Aldridge was destroying Oklahoma City in the post. Serge Ibaka did not have the strength to contain Aldridge for forty minutes per night, and that was costing the Thunder big time.
Thus, in game three, Billy Donovan attempted to play a lineup with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams in together. At first, this was ineffective. You can see why below:
As you can see, at first this lineup was playing with primarily weaker defenders. Thus, when Kawhi Leonard began driving, Adams (or, not in this clip, Kanter) had to double, leaving Aldridge wide-open. Ultimately, this decision resulted in a -11 net rating during game three when both Kanter and Adams were on the court. Yet, during the fourth quarter of said game, you can see why this lineup could be effective.
You’ll notice two things in this clip: first, Westbrook, Waiters, and Roberson all playing good help defense; but second and more important, Kanter and Adams gave the Spurs’ bigs major problems. When the ball is passed from LaMarcus Aldridge into David West to initiate the offense, Kanter’s length and strength prevented West from running the first offensive set. At this point, the ball is passed to Danny Green to initiate the second play, which means the ball ultimately is in the hands of Aldridge in the post. Here, because of Adams’ elite one-on-one defense, Aldridge takes a poor shot and misses it. This play spelled trouble for the Spurs heading into the next two games. Let’s examine game four, where the Thunder were sixteen points better than the Spurs with Kanter and Adams on-court.
What makes this clip so interesting is it shows you how dominant the Adams-Kanter frontcourt is when the Spurs do not have Aldridge on the court. David West and Boris Diaw are both good players. And moreover, Diaw is an elite post-up scorer. But Adams and Kanter can use their length to render the Spurs’ backup bigs irrelevant. Now, let’s look at a clip from the same game when Aldridge is playing.
In this play, Aldridge attempts to post-up Adams, but the latter’s length provides difficulty for the former. Moreover, the Spurs generally collapse the paint on offense in an attempt to open up perimeter shooters and grab rebounds. Here, though, Kanter’s ability to stand between West and the open perimeter shooter, and then his ability to grab the rebound, prevent the Spurs from working through their gameplan. Now, let’s move onto game five, where the Kanter-Adams random was fifteen points better than San Antonio in seventeen minutes.
This clip shows how Kanter’s length bothers Tim Duncan. Simply put, Duncan cannot move the ball into the post whatsoever. This, combined with Adams’ defense on David West, allows the Thunder to continuously blitz the ball handler on a pick-and-roll, further slowing down the Spurs’ offense. Now, let’s look at another play where both Aldridge and Duncan are in the game.
The defense in this clip is slightly different. At what point, Adams completely leaves Aldridge to ensure the Spurs’ guards could not penetrate into the painted area. Whether Adams is actually fast enough to recover that distance is up for debate, however, his length makes driving-and-dishing nearly impossible.
This, we have shown that the length of Adams and Kanter is enough for them to be able to guard the best big-man rotation in the NBA; however, this does not mean they will fair well against Golden State’s or Cleveland’s small-ball rotation. The fact of the matter is we don’t. In five games against the Warriors and Cavs, Oklahoma City has not played Kanter and Adams together with other Thunder starters even one time. Yet, we can speculate to make reasoned observations.
Golden State will try and kill Enes Kanter with the pick-and-roll whenever he is in the game. If the Warriors go small-ball, or a lineup that features Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green, the Thunder will have some interesting decisions to make. More than likely, Adams would guard Green and Kanter would guard Iguodala or Barnes. On one hand, the Thunder’s length would force a lot of turnovers and grab the majority of the rebounds; however, the Warriors offense would generate a lot of open three-point shots by attacking Kanter. Thus, it is a matchup we would need to witness before we decide whether it is good or bad for Oklahoma City. Nonetheless, it is clear that Oklahoma City will be able to matchup just fine against the Warriors’ – and even the Cavs’ (Thompson, Love, Frye, and Mozgov) – bigs.
Billy Donovan’s discovery of playing Kanter and Adams with Oklahoma City’s starters has been an enormous coup for the rookie head coach. It allows the Thunder to neutralize the Spurs’ greatest strength in today’s NBA. The question now, assuming they do defeat the Spurs (which is by no means guaranteed), will be how well Oklahoma City can defend small-ball, floor-spacing lineups with their patented form of “big-ball.”