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NBA Saturday: Warriors Exploiting Thunder’s Weaknesses

The Thunder are in need of adjustments after the Warriors exploited their weaknesses in Game 2.

Jesse Blancarte

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After two games in the Western Conference Finals, the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder are set to square off in Oklahoma City on Sunday night with the series tied. Getting a split on the Warriors’ home court is a nice achievement for the Thunder, but there are some causes for concern for Oklahoma City heading into Game 3.

“They were sending three guys,” said Kevin Durant after the Thunder fell to the Warriors in Game 2. “I was trying to make the right pass. I was turning the ball over, playing to the crowd. So, maybe I’ve just got to shoot over three people.”

Durant was clearly frustrated after the Warriors stifled the Thunder and won Game 2 by a final score of 118-91. However, the final score wasn’t the only thing for Durant to be frustrated about. As he said in the above quote, the Warriors swarmed him all night with multiple defenders. Unfortunately for Durant and the Thunder, the Warriors can get away with this extremely aggressive defensive scheme for several reasons, including the poor shooting of Andre Roberson.

Here are just two examples of how the Warriors guarded Roberson in Game 2.

Screenshot 2016-05-20 22-02-40

Screenshot 2016-05-21 05-53-20

The Warriors are an extremely effective defensive team and are even more dangerous when they can consistently exploit an opponents’ weakness. Roberson’s poor shooting allowed the Warriors to not just sag off of him, but to essentially ignore him completely, allowing Draymond Green to play like a free safety.

“[Green has] been able to roam around and provide a lot of different help,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “When he’s doing that, we’ve got to recognize the way the floor is balanced … It doesn’t always mean Andre’s going to be open for a shot, but he may be open to create an opportunity for somebody else.”

As Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript pointed out in this piece, the Thunder shot 48 percent on drives to the basket during the regular season, but are now connecting on just 32 percent of these shots against the Warriors through two games.

Of course, this isn’t exactly shocking when you consider that the Warriors are a smart, disciplined team. They have some of the most versatile wing-defenders in the league, the runner up for this season’s Defensive Player of the Year award and rim protectors like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli on the roster. But add those ingredients together with the fact that the Warriors are ignoring Roberson and packing the paint, and we get plays like the one we see in this screenshot.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-05-20 22-05-42

As Durant pointed out after the game, he was often operating against two and sometimes three defenders (especially when Roberson was on the court). In the clip below, the Warriors ignore Roberson on the perimeter and send two defenders at Durant. To Roberson’s credit, he recognizes this and makes himself a threat by cutting to the basket. However, Roberson runs into Bogut and is unable to finish at the rim.

When asked about the effect Green’s roaming defense has on the Thunder’s offense, Donovan asserted that moving the ball and finding an open man would address the problem.

“Well, it doesn’t really,” Donovan reiterated. “I think that for us, it was just a matter of getting good shots, creating good shots, making the extra pass and finding the open man.”

However, as we just saw in the clip above, Durant found the open man, who still ended up taking a contested shot at the rim. With the Warriors’ defenders hounding Durant on the perimeter and packing the paint, it’s difficult for the Thunder to swing the ball and exploit the Warriors’ defense. While resorting to hero ball and shooting over three defenders seems like a recipe for disaster, Durant did find more success in Game 2 when he made quick decisions and attacked on offense.

In this clip, Durant uses the threat of a screen from Adams to get a little bit of separation from Andre Iguodala. With a quick shot, Durant found himself an open look against a single defender.

The same was true even when Durant was handling the ball. With Dion Waiters on the court, rather than Roberson, Durant had a little more space to operate. With a decisive pull up jumper coming off of a high screen from Adams, Durant got a decently clean look against one defender on this play.

Waiters may not be the most dependable shooting guard in the league, but he has stretched the Warriors’ defense out more than Roberson, as we can see in this screenshot.

Screenshot 2016-05-21 05-15-50

Here, we see Green guarding Waiters out to the three-point line, which he essentially did not have to do with Roberson on the court. The Warriors are still in a nice collective defensive position against the Thunder in this set, but at least Durant doesn’t have multiple defenders cheating over prematurely. Again, the extra space that Waiters creates may not seismically shift the Thunder’s fortunes in Game 3, but it should help a little.

This is especially true when you consider that the Thunder have been outscored by 29.2 points per 100 possessions in the 36 minutes that Roberson has played in this series, which is the worst net rating on the team by almost 10 points.

However, the Thunder’s problems go beyond Roberson’s shooting and Durant being smothered. While the Thunder have benefited from the collective length and size of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter throughout these playoffs, they are not exactly well-equipped to check Stephen Curry on switches. Curry exploited this in Game 2 and will likely continue to do so moving forward.

To Adams’ credit, any big man is going to be vulnerable one-on-one against Curry and Adams moves decently well in this next clip, but Curry is too skilled and too quick for the big man to keep up with.

Ibaka has struggled to stick with Curry as well and it’s even more difficult when he has to try and cover him out of defensive rotations forced by the Warriors’ ball movement.

Despite having superior mobility for a big man, Ibaka has never been great at defending guards and wing-players on the perimeter. If the Warriors can consistently put him, Adams and Kanter into situations like this, the Thunder are likely going to suffer from several more offensive explosions from Curry. The Thunder are at a severe disadvantage in guarding Curry on switches, so it is imperative their big men collectively punish the Warriors on the glass and with second-chance points. However, that may be a lot to ask when you consider how much ground these players are being asked to cover on defense, which is surely causing them to get tired more than normal.

******

Though Game 2 showed us how vulnerable Oklahoma City is with Roberson’s shooting and Curry attacking the Thunder’s bigs, the Thunder can make some adjustments. Based on what we saw in Game 2, the Thunder need to at least consider moving away from Roberson altogether. While he is a nice defender, his poor shooting allows Green to play like a free safety on defense. Green is a smart defender and will continue to stifle the Thunder’s offense more than he normally would when playing a more traditional brand of defense. At least with Waiters on the court, Green at least has to consider guarding out to the three-point line.

Also, as we saw above, the Thunder need to get the ball to Durant coming off of multiple screens so he can take quick jumpers against rotating defenders. He won’t get an open look every time, but he’ll likely get better shots than he did when he called for the ball in isolation against multiple defenders. Additionally, when Waiters is on the court, Durant should probably handle the ball more frequently and attack the rim aggressively coming off of high screens set by his bigs.

These adjustments may not be enough to shift the tide in Game 3, but every bit helps against the Warriors.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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