VIDEO: Thunder handle Mavs 131-102 in Game 3
DALLAS — There is never a downside to having a pair of top-five players as teammates, especially if they respect and genuinely like each other and seldom, if ever, conflict on the floor. This is certainly the case with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City would be a dusty NBA outpost without them.
There is a nit-pick, though. When the Thunder are involved in tight finishes, you often wonder why they bother calling a timeout, because there’s no sense drawing up a play. Everyone knows what’s coming. OKC will spread the floor and allow either Durant or Westbrook to go one-on-one.
It’s the type of simple and non-creative strategy that helped grease Scott Brooks‘ path out of town. The ex-OKC coach, freshly hired in Washington, showed no imagination with his playbook in the final two minutes and critics howled and cringed whenever OKC lost close playoff games to the elite teams in the West. The blame went to Brooks instead of key injuries to Westbrook and Durant.
But look here: Billy Donovan is doing the same thing, and in that sense, you can’t tell the difference between one coach and the other.
This strategy was moot in a pair of blowout victories over the Mavericks in their first-round series, but in Game 2, which OKC lost by a point, Donovan had Durant keep firing even though Durant eventually missed 26 shots. He did drill a critical 3-pointer in the final minute, but by then OKC was seconds away from being upset.
In one sense, how can any coach take the ball out of the hands of players who are averaging more than 20 points and bring great credentials? If anything, that would be grounds for a coach getting fired, or at least it seems. Besides, Durant and Westbrook probably wouldn’t stand for it and would keep the ball anyway.
“Kevin and Russell are such great one-on-one players that you’re not going to run motion offense,” Donovan said. “What you do is space the floor for them. When you create space, then it’s up to them to make good decisions. They just can’t jack-knife and shoot over two guys.”
Westbrook is so great at reaching the rim, and Durant brings superb shooting range, that Donovan (like Brooks before him) will play the odds. The downside is their teammates stand around and make little effort to be anything more than mannequins. Also, it feeds the notion that Durant and Westbrook don’t trust their teammates with the ball in those situations, and so great defensive teams will exploit that lack of trust and simply leave those teammates open while doubling on the All-Star duo.
Again, this is likely good enough to get OKC beyond the first round and the understated Mavericks. But what about the next round against the Spurs, who can use Kawhi Leonard on single coverage on Durant? Or a smart defensive team like the Warriors? Doesn’t Donovan need to introduce a new wrinkle that in some way involves, for example, Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka, the under-used Anthony Morrow or Dion Waiters?
It’s probably too late for that. Those players, neglected all season in these situations, probably aren’t comfortable with the ball and the burden that comes with it. And so, unlike the Spurs or Warriors, the Thunder’s offensive formula omits all but two players, although they are two very special players. OKC will go two-on-five and continue to believe that is a big advantage in its favor.
VIDEO: Durant scores 34 points in OKC’s Game 3 win