OKLAHOMA CITY — Andre Roberson has quickly become the most divisive player in the Western Conference Finals.
Should the defensive specialist keep starting even as he has continued to hold back his team’s offense? Or, should Dion Waiters, who has performed well, take his spot in the first unit?
If the Spurs used Kawhi Leonard to sag off Roberson, the Warriors are ignoring him altogether. Second-place Defensive Player of the Year finisher Draymond Green is playing a figurative zone instead of guarding Roberson, camping in the paint long enough to tell ghost stories. And if the ball comes to Roberson, the defense barely reacts.
“[Green has] been able to roam around and provide a lot of different help,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “When he’s doing that, we’ve got to recognize the way the floor is balanced … It doesn’t always mean Andre’s going to be open for a shot, but he may be open to create an opportunity for somebody else.”
Still, Donovan rejected the premise of Green’s one-man zone mucking up the Thunder offense, which has struggled with Roberson on the floor.
“Well, it doesn’t really,” Donovan reiterated. “… I think that for us, it was just a matter of getting good shots, creating good shots, making the extra pass and finding the open man.”
It’s not just about finding or hitting open shots, though. Even if Roberson starts taking or creating those, the Warriors aren’t the type of team to back down from a season-long sample size just because something went wrong for one or two plays.
“They’re trying to force a skip pass to some other player,” said Steven Adams. “Just pretty much get KD and Russ out of attacking mode.”
The Thunder have grown uncomfortable because of it.
With Green there to help every which way, the Thunder haven’t been able to get to the rim nearly as effectively — in part because Green helping everywhere allows the rest of the Warriors, especially center Andre Bogut, to be more aggressive, too.
Oklahoma City is driving to the hoop just as much through two games against the Warriors as it did in the regular season (24.5 times a game). The ball just isn’t going into the hoop nearly as much.
The Thunder shot 48 percent on drives during the regular season, good enough to place them inside the NBA’s top 10. They’re making just 32 percent of their attempts on drives against Golden State.
Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, who shot 51 percent on drives in the regular season is just 2-of-11 on those opportunities against the Warriors. The team’s turnovers have risen with Roberson on the floor, as well. And the Thunder’s scoring efficiency with Roberson on the floor has fallen to worrisome levels.
“It’s definitely kudos to their coach for seeing it, understanding and taking that risk to let that happen,” said Adams.
But don’t think starting Waiters would make things all peachy. A move for the sake of a move isn’t always the answer.
Waiters, like Roberson, has been a lock-down defender this postseason, but, unlike Roberson, his success has mostly come while guarding the ball. He still has flaky moments away from it. But if he were to start instead of Roberson, he would be the one guarding Klay Thompson, the wing who bounces off screens and finds ways to get open about as well as anyone on this side of the Clippers’ J.J. Redick or the Hawks’ Kyle Korver.
You risk Waiters getting lost or other players overcompensating to help him and leaving their primary assignments open. And putting Waiters on Stephen Curry could lead to trouble, too, since you would then need to assign Westbrook to Thompson or Barnes, both of which could wear out the Thunder point guard.
It goes beyond the defense, too. A change could extend to locker room morale.
The Thunder split in Oakland, defying expectation. Given that, how could Donovan then go changing his starting lineup hoping to keep his players happy.
Still, even if the Thunder offense recovers to more acceptable levels, it remains short of its ceiling as long as Roberson remains on the floor. And for the Thunder to beat a 73-win team, they have to insure that every micromanaged move yields the best result.
There doesn’t have to be a change to the starting lineup, but Oklahoma City may want to address its rotation, especially if Green’s one-man zone gets the Warriors off to a hot start in Game 3.