Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 5/30/12
Thanks to the Oklahoma City Thunder, we're now tragically aware of a Nerd Chic movement digging its frightening tentacles into the NBA. (Our advised response for commissioner David Stern: Go Dress Code Red.) The Thunder also provided evidence that the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers could stand to hire a few more quick employees. And they've reminded us how astute vice presidentgeneral manager Sam Presti has been in regard to talent acquisition. But most of this knowledge was imparted during the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. Our current challenge is to establish a few things we've learned about the Thunder during their first two conference-finals losses to the Spurs in San Antonio. While some of the troubles are expected to seem less calamitous when the series shifts to OKC, here's a start: -- Kevin Durant is not very superstar-like while attempting to work off the dribble against shorter defenders named Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. That theory goes double for the fourth quarter, when the clever Spurs dial up the awareness level in their help-side defense. The difficulty for the 6-foot-10 KD in beating Jackson and friends on the bounce was painfully apparent during Game 1. So, to demonstrate that Spurs coach and widely acknowledge hoops genius Gregg Popovich isn't matching wits with a bunch of dopes, the Thunder staff seemed to borrow a superstar-freeing tactic used by the Miami Heat. If you've been paying attention to the Heat lately, Miami coach Eric Spoelstra has assisted the recent Dwyane Wade uprising by frequently running his star guard off a "flex'' screen along the baseline. With LeBron James occupying the ball (and the attention of most opposing defenders) on the opposite wing, Wade has had some success either using this screen to establish great position for a deep catch and layup or wicked post-up position. OKC used this strategy to fairly decent success in creating opportunities for Durant during Game 2's opening quarter. Unfortunately, this maneuver -- which enabled Durant to shoot his contested jumpers within 12 feet of the cup instead of 20 feet, as in the fourth quarter of Game 1 -- seemed to be forgotten during the dribble-drive-oriented, comeback fury of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. -- Westbrook can't guard Spurs point guard Tony Parker while attempting to dodge on-ball screens with no assistance. Guarding Parker straight up is tricky enough. But with OKC coach Scott Brooks realizing his "bigs" are among the league's worst in defending ball screens, the Thunder strategy of not showing hard on screens is putting Westy in a no-win situation. With Parker turning the corner for uncontested mid-range jumpers and roaring into the lane for floaters or kicks to San Antonio's legion of deadly snipers, Westbrook appears to be more eager than usual for payback on the other end. This leads us to our next bit of knowledge ... -- Westbrook's eye-popping ability to get into the lane and levitate near or over the rim isn't doing him or the Thunder much good against Tim Duncan and other well-positioned Spurs. It's no secret, of course, that he usually hits the lane with the intention of jumping over or around defenders for a bucket. In contrast, the surgical James Harden isn't as obsessed with leaving his feet until he knows there's a clear path to the rim. He doesn't elevate to an insane level like Westbrook, but he is no vertical slouch. And after figuring out the Spurs' interior defense can be a mine field, Harden spent Game 2 looking for angles ... and teammates. -- Kendrick Perkins is worse at defending ball screens than most of us realized. And, going into this series, I truly believed the hulking, glaring center was among the worst in the league. Although he's established as a successful, low-post obelisk on defense and a solid rebounder, Perkins lacks the quickness, footwork, balance and interest to provide OKC with a shot at re-routing Parker or Manu Ginobili. With Perkins standing five feet behind the screener -- sometimes by design, sometimes by lack of quickness and effort -- the Spurs' ballhandlers can choose between fish-in-a-barrel jumpers or full-head-of-steam drives to the rim. For the record, teammate Serge Ibaka -- the league leader in blocked shots -- is almost as bad in helping perimeter teammates on ball screens. If he and Perkins had the lateral chops to delay Parker and Ginobili for even a twitch, Westbrook and Harden would have a fighting chance of preventing dribble penetration. And if Perkins and Ibaka were able to get in a legitimate stance and impede the dribbler's vision for a quick moment, their teammates also would have a bit more time to make appropriate rotations to the rim roller and shooters spotting up beyond the arc. When a Thunder big has been instructed to show hard or trap, bad angles and lack of aggression from teammates guarding the dribbler have resulted in defense-murdering splits. But the OKC bigs aren't exactly as mobile as Tyson Chandler, who was named Defensive Player of the Year n his first season with the New York Knicks. Ironically, Presti had acquired Chandler in a 2009 deal that fell apart when team doctors wouldn't sign off on the long-term projections regarding the health of Tyson's injured toe. Chandler would have required a big-money commitment by now, so affording Harden and Ibaka next summer might have been even more difficult than doing so with Perkins' cap number. -- This is not a good matchup for the Thunder. Well, it's hard to imagine the Spurs looking like a favorable matchup or anyone, right? But battling San Antonio player for player is pretty difficult for an OKC team that doesn't have a big in its four-man post rotation capable of consistently making perimeter shots or abusing smaller defenders on the post. The ball-screen issues on defense have encouraged Brooks to play small, something the Spurs already do often and well. Although starting power forward Boris Diaw isn't bad on the post, he's a beast as a facilitator on the perimeter. His backup, Matt Bonner, is a deep shooter with limited efficiency in the lane on either end of the floor. Well, can't OKC just stay with its starting lineup and punish Diaw or Bonner inside? No, because Perkins is pretty awful at all aspects of offense (including scoring on the block), and Ibaka lacks the hands and post-up game to take advantage of his length and leaping ability. Brooks also receives little on offense from Nick Collison, and Nazr Mohammed is not much of a defender and has limited shooting range. The Thunder had some Game 2 success going with a small alignment (Durant at power forward and Ibaka at center) that enabled it to switch all screens. This diluted San Antonio's screen-roll attack, and subsequent attempts to post Duncan against Ibaka were muted by fronting with lob help. Expect Popovich to scheme for more efficient ways to empty the backside for Duncan if Brooks attempts to duplicate this plan in Game 3. With four perimeter players and Ibaka on the floor, the Thunder had more shooters to occupy Spur defenders beyond the 3-point lane, creating wider driving lanes for Harden and Westbrook. Harden took advantage, but Westbrook's early commitment to launch himself wasn't nearly as effective. It also resulted in fewer touches for Durant. The Thunder's offensive issues could be solved if one of their bigs could provide enough of a perimeter threat to force Duncan outside. Presti used to have a 7-footer who could shoot. His name is Byron Mullens, and he did very little for OKC in his two seasons on the roster. With Cole Aldrich moving ahead of him, Mullens was traded for a second-round pick to Charlotte, where he demonstrated some scoring ability. But, Mullens remains a poor defender and inconsistent rebounder. Although his potential was never in question, salary-dumping a player who had failed to crack a four-man rotation shouldn't be condemned. Another big-man shooter who used to play for the Thunder is Nenad Krstic, who went to Boston with Jeff Green in the deal that delivered Perkins. Against the creatively-stagnant Lakers and Andrew Bynum, having Perkins was pretty important. Duncan and the pick-and-roll-heavy Spurs are a much different opponent to slay.
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