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Give and Go: Curry's return, Lowry's struggles and controversial refereeing
8:19 | NBA
Give and Go: Curry's return, Lowry's struggles and controversial refereeing
Friday May 6th, 2016

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The opening game of a playoff series is a test of viability. Each coaching staff has an idea of the players they’d like to play and the strategies they’d prefer to employ. Only some will actually work. From there begins a gradual refinement; the art of the adjustment involves zeroing in on what a team does best and leaving much of the rest by the wayside, no matter the good it served during a long regular season or some playoff series past. There’s no room to be precious when a coach must be precise.
 
All of this is relatively new to Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, who has plenty of experience with postseason pressure but little with the dynamics of a postseason series. The NCAA tournament is a different beast. Its format leaves no opportunity for strategic clarification because one game decides all. Were that the case in this series, Oklahoma City would have been erased from the playoffs with a Game 1 blowout. Instead, Donovan was able to tinker with his rotation for the game that followed to alter its staging. 
 
The most prominent of those changes: Filtering the frontcourt rotation so that all of the game’s power forward and center minutes went to Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and small-ball power forward Kevin Durant. Here’s a breakdown of how the 96 total minutes between those two positions were distributed over the course of the first two games against San Antonio:
 
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Proportionally speaking, the involvement of players like Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed were exaggerated by the lopsided margin in Game 1. Collison, though, was a rotation regular for the entire first-round series against Dallas and filled his usual minutes in the first half of the blowout loss. He was bumped from the rotation entirely in the game that followed—a decision that was likely overdue. There’s little place for a player like Collison against the best defensive team in the league; when he caught the ball on a short roll in Game 1, the Spurs defense actually pulled back to cover lob threats and passing angles while allowing Collison any shot he wanted from the lane. That won’t do.

 
Durant assumed some of Collison’s minutes in Game 2, albeit with ghastly results. The idea of Durant as a power forward is spectacular. The reality of it is soured when those minutes come alongside Kanter, Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Dion Waiters. That lineup was outscored by an astounding 17 points in six total minutes of action, during which the Thunder shot 1-of-9 from the field and bled out defensively. One late-game stretch, in particular, nearly cost Oklahoma City the game.
 
“In the fourth quarter* there, both Serge and Steven kind of needed a rest,” Donovan said. “I opted to go small and maybe lineup-wise it wasn't the best lineup at that particular time just because I thought we had some very difficult matchups. We were also trying to rest some guys, too. So I think I probably need to do a better job in terms of if we are going to go small, to maybe move around that lineup and have it look a little different.”
 
(*The stretch in question actually took place in the final 3:40 of the third quarter.)
 
The lineup Donovan trotted out would have failed no matter who was playing power forward. Some adjustment elsewhere in the rotation should be able to fix the problem; by altering substitution patterns slightly, the Thunder should be able to field a more balanced (and thus more competitive) small-ball unit to help buy time for the bigs to rest. It’s natural for Ibaka and Adams to be tired; the former was bludgeoned throughout Game 2 by LaMarcus Aldridge and the latter played particularly engaged defense against San Antonio’s layered play action. The problem, more generally, is that both Ibaka and Adams would end their first stint of each half together—thereby aligning their minutes on the floor. Staggering their exits would minimize the minutes in which a frontcourt of Durant and Kanter would be expected to slow one of the best offensive teams in the league.
 
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Rocky Widner/Getty Images

A slice of Collison’s minutes also went to Adams, enabling the seldom-used jumbo pairing of Adams and Kanter. Those two only played 127 minutes together all season, yet in the early fourth quarter Donovan entrusted them to hold their own against San Antonio’s reserve bigs. They succeeded—perhaps in a way that could last a few minutes at a time throughout the series.

 
“I’m not sure of the numbers [for our small-ball lineups]—I’m not a big analytics guy—but it wasn't as good as I thought it should've been,” Durant said. “But this team is huge. They play two bigs. They don't play small. They play the traditional way. So maybe we've gotta stay big to combat that so we'll see.”
 

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Within that same lineup was another adjustment: Waiters, whose ability is so often shorted by his decision-making, was left in the game to run point. Oklahoma City got away with playing Randy Foye as its backup point guard in its first-round series against Dallas, yet Donovan found out rather quickly that the out-of-position veteran wouldn’t be a realistic option against San Antonio.

 
“I think one of the things that has happened for [Foye] at the point against them has been the pressure up the court,” Donovan said. “[They’re] trying to take him out of the game, trying to pressure him and get the ball out of his hands. I think it’s almost put him in a position where it’s taken away and neutralized a little of what he does really well.”
 
Foye didn’t see a single minute of action in Game 2. Yet Payne, whom Donovan had tabbed as the natural point guard alternative, was also flustered by San Antonio’s defense in the ways you’d expect a rookie point guard on the fringes of the rotation might be. Talent alone won’t cut it. Payne simply doesn’t have the practical experience to run an offense under this level of scrutiny, particularly when he wasn’t given much opportunity to scale up with minutes against the much more accommodating defense Oklahoma City encountered in the first round. It was worth a try to throw Payne into the fire to see what he might offer, but the Thunder were outscored by 17 points in his seven minutes in Game 2—during which he missed all three of his shot attempts and turned the ball over once.
 
Enter Waiters, who might be Donovan’s last option before further increasing Westbrook’s minutes:
 

The thought of Waiters initiating offense on a regular basis is far from comforting, particularly if Payne’s minutes are whittled down further. Waiters has his merits; relative to the other backup options at the position, Waiters is the best on-ball defender, the strongest driver, and perhaps the best shooter. His play also lacks a certain recognition that can lead to minutes-long downward spirals, the likes of which the Thunder can hardly afford. It seems inevitable that Westbrook will have to play more and more minutes as the series progresses (he logged 37 in Game 2), even at the expense of his on-court energy.

 
“Obviously with as hard as he plays, there are times he needs breaks,” Donovan said. “He just does. I think for him, the way we've rotated—I think he feels good and comfortable with that. But I'm not opposed to or apprehensive at all about putting him in a little bit earlier if we need to on some of those rests. I just want to make sure for the extended minutes he does play he plays with such a motor and such intensity and passion, you don't want to fatigue to be in a situation where he's not playing at that intensity level that he normally plays at. There's a balance.”
 
Waiters, too, ultimately makes the most sense while working on the wing alongside the Thunder’s best players. Only six of his 25 minutes in Game 2—the final six of the game—went to that end. Otherwise, the minutes on the wing were filled by Durant (who played 35 of his 42 minutes at small forward), Andre Roberson (who retained his starting spot), and Anthony Morrow. Foye and Kyle Singler fell out of the wing rotation entirely:
 

Singler initially got his shot in this series as a taller, longer defender to line up opposite San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. That idea was foiled quickly, but credit Donovan for adjusting to have Waiters assume those defensive responsibilities whenever Roberson cannot. The fact that Leonard can shoot over the top of Waiters is undercut by the way Waiters’s strength and quickness prevents Leonard from getting to his spots in the first place. Consider it a fair improvisational solution. Things will get messy when the Spurs click into fluid motion and force Waiters to run through consecutive screens while tracking multiple offensive players. Give him a single focus on a Leonard iso, however, and Waiters can at least hold his own.

 
If he can offer reasonable resistance against Leonard and contribute anything positive offensively, he’ll remain the Thunder’s best closing option at shooting guard. Should he falter in any way, Oklahoma City lies exposed. On top of that: The realities of the point guard rotation may demand his involvement; small-ball lineups will need his wing minutes; and every minute that Roberson or Morrow play is a danger to the offense and defense, respectively. Game-to-game adjustment can only go so far before making a volatile contributor like Waiters the rotation’s pressure point.

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