We're quite likely going to see some defensive adjustments from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra for Thursday's Game 2 in Oklahoma City. The Thunder shredded the touted Miami defense for 1.23 points per possession in Game 1. In particular, Kevin Durant poured in 36 points on just 20 shots, a level of production and efficiency that is going to be hard for the Heat to overcome if they can't improve.
In our roundtable before the series, I noted that if Durant wins the head-to-head matchup against LeBron James, the Heat has no chance to win the series. In retrospect that probably overstates matters, but I think it's more true than not. I also noted in my simulation piece on the Finals that if there is one player that can slow down the unguardable Durant, it's James who is on the short list of the best defensive players in the NBA. As a result, I was more than a little shocked at just how infrequently James guarded Durant in Game 1.
To confirm what I thought I saw, I went back through the video from MySynergySports.com and charted the possessions Durant used in the game. That gave me 26 clips to break down. First, some observations:
- Sure enough, Shane Battier spent most of the game as the primary defender on Durant, though as Kevin Pelton suggested in his recap, he switched off of Durant more frequently as the game progressed. Durant scored 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting with Battier as his primary defender. He was 1 for 2 from the line and didn't commit a turnover.
- Durant had eight of those points against Battier after switches, shooting 3 of 5 from the floor and 1 of 2 from the line. Again, no turnovers. All six instances in which Durant used a possession after Battier switched off of him, it was Dwyane Wade who was left to compensate for a significant height disadvantage.
- I charted just three Durant possessions in which James began as the primary defender on the play, and James switched with Udonis Haslem on one of them. Of the two no-switch possessions, Durant had two points and shot 1 for 2. The basket was a Durant dunk after James was picked off by Kendrick Perkins at the top of the 3-point circle. Neither of the announcers calling the game--Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy--pointed it out, but I thought Perkins grabbed James on the play and should have been called for an illegal screen.
- There was one possession that began with Wade as the initial defender on Durant. Haslem ended up with the assignment off the switch, and fouled Durant.
- Durant scored 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting in primary or secondary transition. I haven't assigned any of those numbers to an individual defender.
In total, Durant's 36 points were split evenly between switches, non-switches and transition opportunities. He needed just five shots to get his 12 transition points, and six shots to get his 12 against switches. All nine of his free-throw attempts came on those plays. When the Heat didn't switch against Durant, he had 12 points on nine shots and committed one of his two turnovers. (The other one came in transition.)
The conclusion I reached from all of this is that Spoelstra might have out-thought himself in Game 1 in terms of his defensive design. Part of Miami's problem with containing Durant in the open court came from all of the cross matches resulting from Spoelstra's defensive assignments. Durant gets down the floor so fast, there just wasn't time for his primary defender to get across the court to pick him up. A prime example came in the first half, when Durant just walked into a wide open 3-pointer because no one picked him up.
As for the switches, Durant is so cagey that he attacked as soon as he saw the switches take place. That's why he got fouled so frequently on those plays, because by the time the new defender was set, Durant was already on his way past, or was rising up for an open jumper.
To me, Spoelstra needs to simplify his approach and, yes, that means asking James to guard Durant for most of the game and stick to him as much as humanly possible. I'm not sure how often Miami doubled Durant because when he passed out of those situations, it doesn't count as a used possession. However, I would like to see if James could force Durant into a poor shooting night all by himself. If anyone could do it, it would be James. Sure he'd have to fight through a lot of screens, but James is a tough guy to pick and Miami might be able to get an illegal screen turnover or two.
Meanwhile, Spoelstra could focus the rest of his defensive attention on keeping Russell Westbrook out of the lane, another task easier said than done. I don't think Battier has the foot speed for that assignment, but Mario Chalmers does. According to NBA.com/Stats, Westbrook shot 30.6 percent from the floor with Chalmers on the court during the regular season. In Game 1, he was 7 for 18 with Chalmers in the game and 3 of 6 when he was out. Chalmers would need help, some of which could be provided by Wade, but the point guard on point guard matchup appears to be the best bet for Miami. Again, the adjustment should be towards simplicity.
The odd man out in this scenario is Battier, who would still provide key defensive help on Durant for stretches--you can't leave James on him for 48 minutes and hope to get much out of the MVP on the offensive end. But if Miami sports a finishing lineup of Chalmers, Wade, James, Battier and Chris Bosh, then Battier could check one of the Oklahoma City big men, giving the Heat a better offensive lineup to boot.
There are a lot of ways for Spoelstra to go in Game 2, as long as it's a different approach than Tuesday's loss. But, really, it comes down to this: Don't you have to put the game's best wing defender on the league's best scorer?
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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