NBA Finals: On the Oklahoma City Thunder, Small-Ball, and Changing the Post Rotation

Jun 12, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Nick Collison (4) goes for the rebound against Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh (1) during the fourth quarter of game one in the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder defeated the Heat 105-94. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

Coming into this series, much was made of each team’s ability to play small with Kevin Durant and LeBron James at the 4, surrounded by three perimeter players and a lone big man.  These units were very effective for both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat during the regular season and through the postseason’s first three rounds, and it was easy to see why for each.  Durant and James, as dominant as they are playing their “natural” position of small forward, are even better when sliding down a spot in the lineup; KD registered a PER of 33.0 as a small-ball 4, and LeBron bettered it with a 37.1 of his own.

It’s not just what each team’s best player did when playing power forward that yielded such positive influence, though.  Both the Thunder and Heat, obviously, replace a big with an extra small when downsizing, gaining tons of offense while not sacrificing much on the other end due to the unique talents of not just Durant and James, but also bigger-than-normal guards Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade.  Oklahoma City’s success here is a little more obvious because it gets their three best players – Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden – on the floor together, while Miami is helped by not having to play an offensively limited post like Udonis Haslem (when his jumper isn’t falling), Joel Anthony, or Ronny Turiaf.
Chris Bosh’s injury might have had a net positive impact for Miami in the end because it forced Erik Spoelstra’s hand into playing small much more frequently; Shane Battier has started every game since Bosh tore a muscle in his abdomen, James opening as a de-facto power forward.  And despite the fact that Bosh is fully healthy the Heat haven’t abandoned it, just replacing Haslem with Bosh as the team’s go-to big option.  Scott Brooks, despite knowing full well Miami’s plan to play small-ball the majority of each NBA Finals game, hasn’t adjusted accordingly, and his inaction played a huge role in the outcome of last night’s game 2, a 100-96 Heat win.
Just look at the raw plus/minus numbers for Oklahoma City’s starting post tandem.  Perkins was a dreadful -16 for the game, while Ibaka did him just a point better at -15.  Collison, a +/- superstar for his career, was a typical +8 last night, right in line with the Thunder’s perimeter bench options of Harden (+13) and Fisher (+13).  This sample size is obviously small and we’ve never been one to take plus/minus as an end-all be-all, but taking it into account, assuming what we did coming into the NBA Finals, and watching the action on the floor in game 2 made a few things obvious; Perkins’ minutes need to be cut in half, OKC must play small more often, and Collison is probably their best post option.
Combing through ESPN’s play-by-play feature, those takeaways were even clearer.  Take a look for yourself:
First Quarter
  • Oklahoma City starts the game with their usual lineup of Westbrook-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka-Perkins.
  • James Harden enters for Ibaka at 5:39, the Thunder down 16-2.  Four “smalls” and Perkins remain on the floor.
  • Nick Collison replaces Perkins at 3:39, OKC trailing 25-12.  Four smalls and Collison comprise the Thunder’s on-floor unit.  Perkins stays on the bench for the remainder of the first half.
  • Ibaka relieves Westbrook at :35, Miami leading 25-12.  A traditional lineup of three smalls and Ibaka-Collison finish the quarter.
  • Thunder trail Heat 27-15 at the first quarter’s conclusion.

Second Quarter

  • Oklahoma City opens the quarter with same quintet that finished the first: Harden-Fisher-Sefolosha-Ibaka-Collison.
  • Durant enters for Collison at 9:38, OKC down 33-20.  Thunder go small with Ibaka as lone big.
  • OKC plays the remainder of the first half with four perimeter players and Ibaka.  Go into half-time trailing Miami 55-43.

Third Quarter

  • The Thunder open the second half with their usual starters: Westbrook-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka-Perkins.
  • Harden replaces Ibaka at 5:39, OKC down 70-55.  Thunder go small again with Perkins as lone big.
  • Collison comes in for Perkins at :56, Miami leading 76-65.  Small lineup still utilized.
  • Quarter ends with Heat up 11, 78-67.

Fourth Quarter

  • Small unit of Westbrook-Fisher-Harden-Durant-Collison open game’s final stanza for OKC.
  • Ibaka replaces Collison at 4:31, the Thunder now down 90-86.  Small lineup still utilized.  Collison done for the night.
  • Fisher enters for Ibaka at :50, Miami leading 98-91.  First time all game that Oklahoma City has played with no big on the floor.  Ibaka done for the night.
  • Perkins comes in for Sefolosha at :12, OKC down 99-96.  Thunder back to normal small ball.
  • Game ends: Miami Heat 100 Oklahoma City Thunder 96

There’s many aspects and factors to glean from the information above, but none more simple and far-reaching than our notions after watching game 2 and looking at the box score.  Look at it like this: Perkins was in for the portion of the game that gave the Heat their big lead, Collison and four smalls were in for the portion of the game that Oklahoma City finally cut it down, and traditional lineups with two Thunder bigs had a net plus/minus of -18.  Simple, easy, and hardly surprising.

We all know the major influence Collison has on the Thunder at both ends of the floor, questioned Perkins’ place in the OKC lineup in the past and doubted his role in the NBA Finals coming in, and certainly understand Ibaka’s importance as a shot-blocker and sometimes floor-spacer against the Heat.  The question isn’t whether or not Brooks and the Oklahoma City coaching staff do, too; it’s whether or not they feel comfortable rocking the boat enough to reduce Perkins to a bit player, rely on small-ball far more than they ever have, and perhaps reflect each aspect in OKC’s game 3 starting lineup.  The latter is unlikely, but each former approach is one Brooks almost has to utilize for the Thunder’s success in the remainder of this series.