Apr 7, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; New York Knicks guard Raymond Felton (2) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins (5) during the first half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Why the OKC Thunder struggle against small lineups

The Oklahoma City Thunder lost at home 125-120 to the New York Knicks two days ago. Obviously, the problem was defense.

The Knicks shredded through the Thunder defense with unbelievable ease. The Knicks had won their last 11 games before that meeting and their offense was in a great groove. Also, Carmelo Anthony came into the game having scored at least 40 points or more in his last three games.

The Knicks had a lot of things going for them but there’s more than just that as to why the Thunder struggled against them so much.

The Knicks went small for nearly the entire game. Tyson Chandler was the only true big man that they played. Other than that, they were going with Anthony and Chris Copeland at the four.

The Thunder had trouble matching up just like they have trouble matching up with the Miami Heat. Small lineups with versatile fours and a bunch of shooters on the floor has become the Achilles heel for the Thunder.

Statistically speaking, the Thunder are as efficient as nearly any team in the NBA. This is hard to believe when, say, a high school basketball coach watches them play because they are so flawed in many fundamental aspects of the game. From Russell Westbrook to Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s efficiency doesn’t exactly come in the same manner that the San Antonio Spurs’ does.

Westbrook takes bad shots, doesn’t get back on defense and makes questionable decisions all game long. Ibaka blocks shots but gets lost on defense and bites on just about every pump fake.

The point being is that the Thunder aren’t as solid as their numbers say they are. Their amazing efficiency is due to their amazing talent, which is right up there with the best in the league.

What small lineups are doing to the Thunder is exposing them. It exposes their weakness in defensive rotations. Ibaka can’t match up with smaller players and Kendrick Perkins is too slow at times. Kevin Durant is an amazing offensive four but defensively still hasn’t totally mastered helping in the paint, although he is definitely improving.

Many people have pushed for the Thunder to go small more often. They’ve been doing so because offensively they are a juggernaut with Durant at the four. The problem is that defensively they become very, very weak.

In most cases, this doesn’t matter too much because they can still outscore their opponents. But when they play a team that is very comfortable going small and has the right personnel, like the Knicks or Heat, it doesn’t work out as well.

The defensive shakiness when going small is why Scott Brooks is so hesitant to commit to that identity. Brooks cares about defense more than anything. His primary goal with the Thunder always has been to get them to an elite defensive status. They’re not there yet.

That’s why we don’t see Brooks playing rookies like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, III. That’s why he loves Derek Fisher and Perkins. In a sense, Brooks isn’t always looking at the scoreboard because he knows the Thunder will be fine. He looks at what his players are doing and cares most about how they are playing defense.

This is the biggest thing that is holding the Thunder back. There could be no graver problem either with the rest of the elite teams in the league like the Heat and Spurs very comfortable hurting the Thunder this way.

The Thunder haven’t reached that plateau yet where they are good enough defensively to win a title. They have the tools to be that. Maybe it’s that they are still too young or haven’t been tested enough to rise to that level. For whatever reason, we haven’t seen the Thunder on that level yet.

The biggest growth always comes in the playoffs. There is still a chance that this year we will see the Thunder get to that level. That a series in the playoffs will propel them to new heights.

Just know that we haven’t seen it yet. Unless you’re predicting for something to happen with this Thunder team that they have yet to show they are capable of, then you should be predicting them not to win the title this year.

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