By John Schmeelk
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The old cliché reads, “Defense wins championships.” But this season, it may very well be the Thunder’s high-octane offense that gets them a title. In the playoffs, against the best competition the league has to offer, the Thunder have an offensive efficiency of 110.5, good enough for best in the league. To put that in perspective, it’s also better than any team’s over the course of the regular season and a more than three-point improvement over their own regular-season mark.
Common knowledge states that in the playoffs the game slows down and offensive numbers dip, but that simply hasn’t been the case for the Thunder. Even after teams have studied them for weeks at a time and played them in consecutive days, they still can’t figure out how to stop them. In fact, the Thunder’s offense has gotten better as the playoffs have gone along. These aren’t bad defensive teams they’ve beaten, either. The Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks were all in the top half of the league defensively this season.
After you’re done marveling, you have to ask how it’s possible. The answer lies in the matchups. Kevin Durant is a six-foot-ten shooting guard and matchup nightmare. Few possess the size and speed of Russell Westbrook. James Harden might not look it, but his savvy game is difficult to guard as well. Teams simply don’t have the bodies to match up with such skilled and athletic perimeter players. I joked on Twitter yesterday that the Heat would be fine defensively only if they could match up LeBron James on every Thunder player. Unless something drastic changes, it looks like James is the only player that’s capable of matching up one-on-one with Durant or Westbrook. Shane Battier is simply too slow and small to guard Durant, and Wade looks a step slow against Westbrook. I’m not sure how the Heat will solve this problem.
The Thunder have really improved their turnover rate. They only had 10 turnovers against the Heat in Game 1 and their ratio has dropped from a league worst 26.5 during the regular season to 20.1 in the playoffs. That ratio in the regular season would have made Oklahoma the second-best team in the league in that category. That sort of improvement is staggering and virtually unheard of. Russell Westbrook has grown up and is making much better decisions, as is Kevin Durant.
Even scarier for Miami is the fact that Oklahoma City scored all those points in Game 1 with James Harden being a complete non-factor. He took only six shots in 22 minutes and wasn’t even on the floor in the fourth quarter. During this playoff run, the Thunder have gone to Harden more and more down the stretch of games. He might be the team’s best decision-maker and passer, and he showed versus the Spurs that he has no fear of taking the big shot.
Unless Dwyane Wade pulls a Benjamin Button and looks younger in Game 2, I don’t know how the Heat guard the Thunder and slow down this offensive juggernaut. In fairness, I don’t think anyone could at this point. If I’m Miami, I go back to trapping and make Serge Ibaka try to beat me. I’d feel much better about that than trying to stay with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Then again, this could be beyond schematics. The Thunder might just be THAT good.
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