Through the first eight games of the 2014 NBA playoffs the Thunder have picked up a bad habit. They are constantly playing from behind. Whether it’s in the series or in an individual game, OKC has had to fight to stay alive on numerous occasions. In the opening round against Memphis, they were behind in the series two separate times, needing to win to tie the series in games four and six. As for their struggle to stay ahead in games, the Thunder spent the majority of games 2-5 playing from behind and lost three of four during that span. As the Western Conference semifinals series against the Clippers fired up on Monday night, Oklahoma City continued their disappointing trend. LA jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, crushing the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. OKC is now playing from behind once again, already putting themselves in a clichéd must win situation as they head in to game two. If the Thunder is unable to pick up a victory and tie the series on Wednesday night they will head to LA down 2-0 and be in serious danger of a sweep.
The initial disadvantage of playing from behind is the effect it has on the offense. Throughout the playoffs whenever the Thunder fall behind, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook look to shoot the team back in to the game. Usually having your two best players taking a majority of the shots isn’t a problem, but in this case it just might be. Durant and Westbrook always take the most shots on the team by a fairly wide margin, even when things are going good. That isn’t a problem because when the Thunder are playing their best ball the offense has good flow and ball movement, allowing them to get their shots while also distributing to teammates. This allows Durant and Westbrook to be highly efficient scorers who take good shots and look for open shooters and cutters when they don’t have an open shot or lane. When the team is behind, they look to shoot in any situation. The offense slows down and the ball tends to stick with one player or the other. This leads to bad shots as well as many turnovers. They will often drive themselves into bad situations and look to pass at the last possible second, leading to bad passing angles or tough situations for their teammates when they finally get the ball. The main problem with this beyond the lack of points scored is the amount of transition opportunities for their opponent, which a team like the Clippers will turn in to easy buckets more often than not.
Although less obvious, there are also disadvantages to playing from behind as a defensive unit. When a team, especially one like the Clippers, has a big lead they are able to play with more freedom. They don’t have to worry about each possession having a crucial impact on the game and they can take a few more risks. For example there was a play in the second half of Monday’s game where Chris Paul drove the right side and up the baseline towards the basket. He found himself dribbling underneath the hoop and towards the middle of the lane. Initially it seemed as if he would have an opportunity for a good look only a few feet from the rim. Instead he elected to pass on the lay-up opportunity and hit Jamal Crawford in the corner. In a closer game, Paul likely would have attempted the lay-up even though Thunder center Steven Adams was closing in for the block. It would have been a high percentage look with a good chance of leading to a foul. This type of play would almost always be the correct choice in a close game because of the high probability of it at least leading to some points whether by made field goal or by free throws. However, because the Clippers had such a big lead at the time Paul chose to take a risk and pass to Crawford in the corner and the NBA’s sixth man of the year knocked down a three pointer to further LA’s lead.
Luckily for the Thunder, they only trail by one game in this best of seven series. If they continue their trend of falling behind early on Wednesday night, they could find themselves down two games heading in to hostile territory. Scott Brooks and his team must find a way to break this bad habit before it comes back to bite them, and they spend the rest of the playoffs at home watching on TV.