Supporting casts not offering much help for Thunder, Pacers in conference finals
The NBA playoffs are made out to be the exclusive purview of superstars. It's on the postseason stage that the truly great are said to separate themselves from the merely good. In that, every possession somehow becomes a referendum on the standing and legacy of a select few. Memories shrink, the collective focus narrows and the power of the moment overwhelms a fully involved tangle of interrelated performances and variables.
Basketball is a big game. There is some sense in concentrating on the best players on the floor, if only as a matter of observational efficiency; natural postseason dynamics, after all, keep those aforementioned stars in the game for even longer stretches and put the ball in their hands that much more often. The danger, though, lies in following that focus through to the point of broader inattention. Every player on the floor matters. Superstars may be the key to winning championships, but it's only through the contributions of lesser players that those stars are even put in a position to contend.
Or, in the inverse case of the two current conference final series: It's only by the relative struggles of lesser players that the Thunder find themselves down 0-2 and that the Pacers surrendered their home-court advantage with a 1-1 split. In Oklahoma City's case, Game 2 might at first seem to speak to the contrary. On that wholly regrettable Wednesday night, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both put forth their worst scoring performances of the postseason. Each managed a mere 15 points in the midst of a Spurs blowout, well below their postseason averages. Together they shot 13-of-40 from the field and attempted just five free throws. To the extent that the game had an enduring image, it was a simmering Westbrook airing his grievances to Durant's cold shoulder.
Neither was at their finest in Game 2, which in a series already jeopardized by Serge Ibaka's injury put the Thunder in a more difficult spot. The reason for that difficulty, though, lies in the burden that Durant and Westbrook now bear. Without Ibaka, those two stars aren't merely asked to be leaders of an offense. They have no choice but to be a scoring majority in themselves. The Ibaka-less Thunder team defense won't stand to the repeated prodding of the Spurs to a degree that would produce a winning margin. And, as was made abundantly clear on Wednesday, in the case that Durant and Westbrook aren't scoring effectively, Thunder coach Scott Brooks can't much count on any of his rotation players to compensate.
Between the second and third quarters, Oklahoma City went a stretch of 13 minutes where Durant and Westbrook were responsible for every one of a mere 20 points scored. Consider just how frighteningly sporadic the scoring of this elite offense became during that stretch through the chart below, with every line representing a scoring possession for the Thunder:
The thickness of the lines in the chart above represents the number of points scored.
That Durant and Westbrook took the lion's share of shot attempts during that stretch is very much the point. Kendrick Perkins is so non-threatening that the Spurs don't even pretend to guard him. Thabo Sefolosha has scored as many points for the Thunder in this series as James Harden. Nick Collison is good for the occasional mid-range jumper but little more. Reggie Jackson is picking his spots well but can't consistently create opportunities. Caron Butler has hit 28.6 percent of his three-point attempts in this matchup. Steven Adams can be useful in some cases, though his utility is limited by San Antonio crowding the paint. How many of those players justify any kind of consistent defensive attention?
One can point to a variety of possessions where Durant or Westbrook might have rushed into a jumper, though focusing on the individual struggles of those stars ignores the desperation that led them to keep firing in the first place. At this point, both are painfully short on contingencies; though Durant and Westbrook aren't blameless in their Game 2 slip, they are without any reliable supplementary scoring, lacking the backbone of their hyper-athletic team defense and deprived of any clear system of offensive principles on which to fall back. Reasonable blame could be assigned to a number of parties, though fundamentally this is a result of a good team being forced to operate outside of its intended form against one of the very best outfits in the league. Every player in the rotation is taxed accordingly.
With that, the Thunder's structural weakness has been laid bare: This is a true three-star team that could no more afford to lose Ibaka than it could Durant or Westbrook.
Indiana's corresponding rotation issues, meanwhile, aren't in any way the cause of some similarly recent development. They've lingered, in varying degrees, throughout the season, and were perhaps disguised a bit when the Pacers as a collective took a bit of a tumble. Now that the course has been corrected, however, the problem is that much more evident: In this matchup, Indiana has but one dependable lineup.
To be fair, it's a damn good one. The Pacer starters have been responsible for Indiana's biggest runs in both games thus far, including those bursts of uninterrupted scoring that helped to build a 19-point lead in Game 1. There has been no delay in getting the ball into the post, whether through Roy Hibbert or David West as matchups dictate. Despite some curious positioning choices in the past, Indiana's floor spacing among its starters has been immaculate; that lineup has hit 53.9 percent of its three-pointers in the series to this point, making it all the easier for the bigs to operate inside. The ball is moving -- whether along the perimeter or interior -- in a way that eluded the Pacers for months. Indiana again reclaimed its standing as one of the few defenses that can make Miami squirm in its execution, a trend traceable in foregone shot attempts and periodic over-passing. Even the commanding advantage on the offensive glass that had seemed to dissipate this season is now returned, with those starters doubling the Heat's offensive rebounding by percentage.
If that five-man group could play 48 minutes a game, Indiana would likely be in command of a 2-0 lead as the series shifts to Miami. Instead, the early trends of the series show that virtually every one of the Pacers' non-starting lineups has been a complete dud. Pacers coach Frank Vogel maintains a pretty conservative rotation that largely pairs one or two reserves with a handful of starters, never for more than a few minutes at a time. All of that tempering has accomplished little; overall, as noted in the image above, Indiana's non-starting lineups have been outscored by 23.1 points per 100 possessions. That's an amazingly implosive swing relative to the advantage of the Pacer starters through two games, and one that could make for Indy's undoing the rest of the way -- particularly if Paul George misses any significant time with a diagnosed concussion.
This starting lineup was constructed with the Heat in mind and has succeeded in consistently challenging Miami as well as as any opponent in the league. Beyond those core five players, though, Indiana makes clear compromises. Ian Mahinmi is a perfectly useful defensive big in most contexts, though the fact that he is not Hibbert invites the Heat to attack the paint. C.J. Watson is a decent reserve guard, though his defensive chemistry on pick-and-rolls and the like still isn't quite right. Luis Scola might be the single most disastrous defender remaining in the postseason and has yet to hit a shot in this series outside the restricted area. Even Rasual Butler, who managed to knock down a few long-range shots in Game 2, saps the Pacers by way of all (ball handling, shooting off the dribble, passing) that he cannot do.
The flaws of those players are evident enough and some of their collective flaws can be plainly seen. Take, for instance, the way that Watson and Scola defended this Norris Cole pick-and-roll:
The inability to get around a soft screen, the hilarious non-hedge, the forced foul...these are poor individual efforts contributing to a clearly identifiable collective problem. Some of Indiana's glitches, though, seem to be more fickle issues of tradeoff and chemistry for a team that walks a fine line.
Fundamentally, this starting lineup was built to be balanced. It was constructed with the intent to apply pressure to teams like the Heat in very particular ways, and so far has succeeded in capitalizing on those advantages. When that balance and continuity is disrupted, however, the Pacers pay the difference. In some cases it's not even a matter of a player like Watson doing something wrong, but the opportunity cost of a player like Lance Stephenson making an even better play in that same instance. Similarly, while Mahinmi hasn't been especially poor in carrying out his defensive responsibilities thus far, Miami has managed to score 132.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor due to the fact that guarding the rim against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade requires exceptional defense.
Balance, then, is both Indiana's greatest strength in this series and its most glaring weakness. The Pacers wouldn't have made it this far without a stout starting lineup of uniformly good players. The codependence therein, though, positions Indiana to periodically flounder when doing without particular skills or delicate chemistries. This is the price of every piece in a big-minute starting lineup fitting just so -- an arrangement where, without the appropriate support in reserve, influence tends to be defined equally by presence and absence.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com.
Photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images