The Denver Nuggets pulled out a big win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night that went a long way toward assuaging the anguish of their loss at home the game before to the lowly Washington Wizards (although Washington has proven to be no pushover since losing a close game in L.A. against the Clippers and beating the Trail Blazers the next night at the Rose Garden). However, there is one thing that has been driving me crazy since, even more than the last possession of regulation where Ty Lawson failed to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded (again).
The Nuggets, up three with just over four seconds left in OT allowed the absolute worst case scenario to occur. They rolled out the red carpet for Kevin Durant to get a look at a wide open three. Durant surprisingly failed to capitalize which is why the massive gaffe did not garner much attention.
To give a little more background on the scenario, the Thunder were out of timeouts, which eliminated the danger of them going for a quick two and trying to foul. They would not have had enough time to get off a decent enough look had they tried to squeeze in two possessions due to the fact they would have to go the length of the floor. Plus the Nuggets had already fouled in that situation previously to prevent a three point attempt and they would have had plenty of time to commit a foul again before the Thunder could get in position to take a buzzer beater three should they so choose.
Knowing this, the Nuggets should have focused completely on the three point line. Let’s look at what transpired.
The Thunder have Durant on the left block with Serge Ibaka close by and Westbrook at the left elbow. If you look at Andre Iguodala he is in the proper position, playing outside Westbrook. He couldn’t care less if Westbrook cuts to the rim. Corey Brewer, knowing he is going to get screened, is in a trail position behind Durant. No problem there. Wilson Chandler is on Thabo Sefolosha, although he is laying off as if he is ready to help should someone get open and flash to the three point line. This is an effective tactic although the risk is Thabo would be open for a return pass. Still, if things break down and you give up an open three, you would rather it be Thabo than KD. Next we look at Kenneth Faried. Faried is hanging out on the block. He should be outside Ibaka just as Iguodala is. You will see what a tremendous positioning error this is.
As OKC kicks off the play we see Westbrook begin down the lane as if he is setting a screen for Durant. This proves to be a diversion.
Durant curls off the Ibaka screen (which ironically on a night with numerous illegal screening violations set a doozy of an illegal screen on Brewer getting into a deep lunge that would make any personal trainer proud). As we look at this screen shot, Iguodala is in position to cover Westbrook flashing to the three point line. Chandler is ready to help and Brewer is in a trail position so he can be on Durant as soon as he receives the pass. Faried on the other hand, is playing as if his only concern is Ibaka.
As Durant curls around the screen Brewer is cleared out by Ibaka. Chandler is a little too far away to provide assistance, which may or may not be a mistake depending on what his role was in this defense. He certainly was not pressuring the inbounds pass, but may have been tasked with helping on a player cutting into the middle of the floor. Regardless, I find it difficult to blame him for not challenging the shot that far from where he was positioned.
Iguodala is potentially close enough to challenge a shot where Durant is going to receive the pass, however, I do not think helping off even crossed his mind as he is trusting his teammates to do their job and work together to cover the always dangerous KD. The primary culprit here is Faried. His man is setting the screen and he is in no position to help in any way. If we continue on to the shot, we can see how open Durant is and how it obviously never crossed Faried’s mind that he might have some responsibility to help Brewer. Faried is roughly 12 feet away watching Durant attempt a wide open attempt at tying the game.
Who is at fault here? I cannot imagine knowing the situation that the coaches did not constantly remind the players that they need to do anything and everything in their power to prevent Durant from getting an open look at a three. Faried should have been prepared to help on the screen and even switch onto KD should Brewer end up in a cheerleader’s lap. Faried is only a second year player, but defending the three point line is a fairly simple directive and he apparently completely ignored it.
Of course, to be fair to Faried, it is possible the coaches instructed him to guard the rim and rebound. If so, this horrific breakdown is all on them. Granted there is a chance that a quick lob, a foul and a full court drive could happen in 4.5 seconds, but the likelihood of that exact series of events being successfully completed is nowhere near as high as the chances of Durant drilling an open three. If they believe an offensive rebound kick out pass and shot is more of a threat than an wide open Durant (which is actually exactly what happened as Faried failed to collect the rebound anyway), they need to have their heads examined. If this is the thinking of the coaches, they are once again defending against a situation while possible, is not probable. Even if Faried is supposed to be in the lane to rebound, he must be prepared to at least offer some assistance if Brewer is taken out.
The frustrating thing is that the best defense to employ in this situation is to switch all screens. Switching allows the defense to deny the player coming off the pick. As we all know Denver switches screens to a fault, yet in this scenario, they played as if they expected Brewer and/or Iguodala to fight through any screen without any help. Even so, the fact that Faried was on the block and not ready to help on the down screen, if not to switch and cover Durant himself, at least to push Durant towards Chandler, was unconscionable. If you are worried about a player like Faried getting caught on Durant, then start with Faried on Durant and Brewer on Ibaka so the switch is more favorable. OKC is not going to change the play so they can post up Ibaka after the come out of the timeout and see Brewer playing between him and the three point line.
OK, the lack of switching is not the only frustrating thing. The fact the Nuggets completely blew the possession makes me wonder how much time they have devoted to end of game situations in practice. They should not have to scramble to cobble together a strategy taking a chance that the players on the court might be confused or ill prepared. The players should know what to do before they even enter the huddle and any discussion should only prove to be a gentle reminder to do what they have trained to do.
Unfortunately, on this night it was just another example of the Nuggets faltering, at both ends of the floor, in end of game situations.