Small Ball Time for the Thunder

By: Bryan Povlinski on June 16, 2012

After Oklahoma City’s Game 2 letdown against the Heat there were two main opinions as to why it happened among the NBA media.

1. The Thunder’s big lineup with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka is getting trampled by the Heat and Scott Brooks needs to make a change.

2. Russell Westbrook is making bad decisions and shooting too much.

First, let me address point #2. It’s easy to blame Westbrook. He shot 10-26 and made some particularly erratic plays in the first quarter when Miami was on their 18-2 run. Here’s the problem though. What else are the Thunder supposed to do with their starting lineup on the floor besides rely on Westbrook to create and make a play? The Thunder come out of the gate with 3 non-scorers in their lineup. Thabo Sefolosha is not a threat to score. Kendrick Perkins can’t even score with Shane Battier defending him in the post. Serge Ibaka has had some impressive performances in the playoffs, but he’s really just a pick and pop guy on offense. Yes, I know Kevin Durant is out there, and he’s quite possibly the best offensive player on the planet. Shouldn’t Westbrook be getting him the ball on every play? Unfortunately, Durant had a guy named LeBron James chasing him around in Game 2. A guy that can be the best perimeter defender in the world when he wants to be. A guy that can shut down anyone from Derrick Rose to Kevin Garnett depending on what his team needs him to do. So don’t fault Westbrook for the Thunder’s poor start. There aren’t many good offensive options with their starting lineup on the floor.

Which leads me to what I believe is the real reason for the Thunder’s struggle. As writers much smarter than me like John Hollinger, Zach Lowe, and Sebastian Pruiti have pointed out (story links above), the Thunder because their starting lineup is built to play a very different style than what the Miami Heat bring to the table. Scott Brooks needs to consider making a change quickly before the Thunder find themselves in a hole they can’t dig themselves out of. Let’s take a look at the numbers on the Thunder’s starting lineup:

So far in the playoffs the Thunder have used their starting lineup of Kendrick PerkinsSerge IbakaKevin DurantThabo SefoloshaRussell Westbrook at the start of the 1st and 3rd quarter in all 17 games they’ve played (except for the 3rd quarter of the Dallas series when Perkins sat out the second half due to a hip injury). So that’s 33 different stints on the court for the Thunder starting lineup. They have only scored more than their opponent on 14 of those 33 tries for an overall +/- of -34. In the 1st quarter it’s even worse. The Thunder starting lineup is -40 in the 1st quarter of the playoffs. To put that in perspective. The Thunder have outscored their opponents by 105 total points during the playoffs. That means their other lineups (besides the starting 5) are +139. Below is a look at the Thunder’s game by game performance of their starting lineup:

Data collected from

It’s interesting to see the trends. Oklahoma City was simply too much for Dallas this year so the lineups didn’t make much of an impact. The Lakers are the type of team that OKC’s starting lineup is specifically designed to matchup against. The Lakers have the best big man tandem in the league in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Perkins can stand his ground against Bynum and Ibaka can give Gasol fits with his athleticism. However, look at the downward trend that started to occur in the San Antonio series. The Spurs start Boris Diaw as their second big alongside Tim Duncan and often elect to go small with Kawhi Leonard or Stephen Jackson playing the 4 position. In this this, one of Oklahoma City’s big men is out of place. This has continued in the Miami series as Ibaka has had to float around the 3 point line to keep an eye on Battier. This keeps him away doing what he does best – protecting the rim. The problem is not Perkins or Ibaka (or even Collison) as individuals, it’s the fact that they’re out on the floor together when there’s only one opposing big man to guard.

Let’s take a deeper look into how the Thunder have fared when they have two big men in the lineup (Perkins, Ibaka, or Collison) versus a single big lineup with only one of those three paired with 4 perimeter players. To do this I collected data from the Thunder-Lakers series and the Thunder-Spurs series. The dataset I’m using consists of lineups that played at least 5 minutes together in the series (I’ve removed lineups of all subs that played in garbage time). This data comes from Lineup Finder.


Against the Lakers the Thunder played almost exclusively with 2 bigs. This makes sense because the Lakers often had Bynum and Gasol on the floor together. The Thunder played small ball only 12% of the total minutes and registered only +5 in those minutes. Contrast that with the San Antonio series:


The Thunder still played their 2 big lineup for the majority of the minutes against the Spurs. However, this clearly was not working. The Thunder were outscored by 15 points when they had 2 big men on the floor. However, the Thunder realized that playing small could work well against the Spurs. The percentage of total minutes using only 1 big more than tripled from the Lakers series. It’s a good thing they made the switch because the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 48 points with their small lineup. This tactical change absolutely swung the series in Oklahoma City’s favor.

There’s no guarantee the same tactic will work against the Heat. There have been signs that it will. The 3rd and 4th quarter blitz that the Thunder put on the Heat in Game 1 was with a lineup of Nick CollisonKevin DurantThabo SefoloshaDerek FisherRussell Westbrook. It’s time for Scott Brooks to trust the stats and begin playing small ball. If they do I believe the Thunder have a very good chance to be crowned NBA champions