Clippers surprise Thunder by going weird late in Game 4
The Los Angeles Clippers went to a small ball lineup in Game 4 that Scott Brooks and the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't figure out how to beat.
Heading into the 2007 NBA Playoffs, the Golden State Warriors were an 8-seed looking to topple the 67-win, 1-seed Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs lost their first four games of the season and finished the season on a 67-11 run to grab the top seed and look like a monster nobody could figure out in the playoffs. The Warriors weren't going to beat the Mavs by playing traditional basketball. They were overmatched from a talent standpoint in that respect, plus Don Nelson loved to get weird on the court.
The Warriors decided to put a much smaller defender on the unstoppable MVP Dirk Nowitzki, and it was going to force the Mavericks to play some uncomfortable basketball. Dallas would have an advantage if they were willing to be patient and exploit it, but as soon as they relented and started to try playing the same weird basketball as the Warriors, who were prepared to play this way, the Mavericks lost their identity and reverted to some poor habits.
While it's not the exact same across the board with Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, you can certainly draw some similarities to the strategy on the surface. In the Clippers' huge comeback win that turned a 22-point deficit into an impressive (and possibly season-saving win), there was a point in which the Clippers got weird in defending Kevin Durant and it ended up being something the Thunder didn't really know how to resolve or exploit.
With 11:07 left in the fourth quarter and the Thunder leading by 15, Chris Paul checked back into the game and drew the defensive assignment on Durant. Paul gives up roughly 11 inches in height to Durant and that might be generous. But Paul is probably stronger than Durant and his leverage and ability to stay on Durant's hip defensively harkened back to Tony Allen's brilliant defense on the MVP and even back to Stephen Jackson defending Nowitzki back in 2007. Before this moment, Durant had 33 points on 9-of-20 shooting, three assists, and five turnovers.
On the next possession for the Thunder, Paul harassed Durant as he tried to create off the dribble and use a screen. Durant attempted a crossover against the Clippers' point guard, only to have it ripped away from him for a transition score by CP3 to cut the lead to 13. Over the course of the rest of the game, Paul picked up Durant as quickly as possible. He grabbed short, clutched arms, had his hand around Durant's waist, fronted him, bumped him, pushed him, deflected his dribble, and did everything he could to channel his inner Tony Allen to defend the league's leading scorer.
What this did in the process was expose a fourth quarter problem Scott Brooks' Thunder team has, which is becoming too basic in the offense in crunch time situations and relying on hero ball for a full quarter to close out the game. As Paul defended Durant, guards like Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison were able to play passing lanes, pick up deflections, and take the ball the other way. From that moment Paul checked in the game to defend the best scorer in the world, the Clippers went on a 38-21 run to squeak out a two-point victory at home to even up the series at 2.
Brooks never changed up what the Thunder were going to do and Westbrook wasn't able to execute a two-man game with Durant. When they ran a pick-and-roll, Paul would show a soft hedge on the perimeter, retreat to Durant's hip, and wait for the offense to stall against them. Westbrook wasn't delivering the pass when it was there and Durant's go-to move was once again hoping to post up at the elbow. None of it worked.
Instead of a straight post-up or putting Durant on the baseline where help defense wouldn't be so easy to shade where the offense could put the ball, the Thunder ran the same play over and over again. Durant had three turnovers in this final 11:07 of the game to his four shot attempts. Westbrook took 10 shots. The rest of the Thunder were basically non-existent on the offensive end of the floor.
Darren Collison became the end-of-game hero while Paul was the defensive stopper for someone who has maybe a foot of height advantage and a galaxy of reach over him. Rivers had an answer for the ugly game by the Clippers in the first 37 minutes. He made the Thunder adjust to his small ball lineup and quirky defensive match-ups. Brooks couldn't adjust or refused to, at least. Instead the Thunder once again had end-of-game issues and have people pointing fingers at the coaching decision.
They used up their timeouts and left their guys on the court with none when they got a huge defensive stop with eight seconds left. This left them with Westbrook taking a contested, pull-up 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left that missed the mark. Instead of putting the Clippers' season in jeopardy, Brooks' inaction along with his players' poor execution of whatever basic game plan was there allowed the series to become even once again.
The Thunder don't need to panic, but they need to develop a Plan B for when Rivers decides it's time to throw something different at OKC to see if they can adjust. The Clippers got weird on Sunday afternoon and it got them a victory. It's time for the Thunder and their coach to find some comfort back in what they do on the basketball court, regardless of what the Clippers throw their way.
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