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Friday, December 30

Anatomy of a Buzzer-Beater: Durant's Winner

A look at Kevin Durant's 3-pointer as time expired to give his Oklahoma City Thunder a victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

The Final 5s
The only group happier than Thunder fans after the game had to have been TNT's NBA producers: they got to use their "from the rafters" shot of an exploding arena!  So ready were they to use a shot fast-tracked to cliché by their own acts and volition that it was cut to before the ball even hit the hardwood after Durant's back-rim-and-down heroics from twenty-eight feet out.  Perhaps it is fitting that during the time of year when commericialism is hardly veiled as holiday sentiment that a moment as euphoric and spontaneous as a game-winning, picturesque jumper from the NBA's leading scorer was already being prepped for capitalizing upon before Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks finished drawing up the play.

After Vince Carter put the Mavericks up one with 1.4 seconds to play, two substitutions were made: Serge Ibaka made way for Thabo Sefolosha and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle sat Carter to bring on a rim-protector in Brendan Haywood.  Both moves made tactical sense: while Rich Harden is an able passer, his perimeter shooting is too valuable for him to be inbounding in a catch-and-shoot scenario even if he isn't the first option, and Carter's defense is known for its matador flair rather than anything resembling effectiveness.

TOP: Initial Positions MIDDLE: Initial Actions BOTTOM: The Finish
For the final action of the game, Oklahoma City came out in the even-familiar-to-fifth-graders "stack" alignment, while Dallas was in a strict man-to-man, save for Shawn Marion who was chest-to-chest with Durant.  Jason Kidd and Jason Terry were on Russell Westbrook and Harden, Dirk Nowitzki was harassing Sefolosha inbounding and Haywood was sagged off of Kendrick Perkins because, say what you will about Scott Brooks' crunchtime play calls, he's not putting the outcome of any game on a Perkins jumper.

Oklahoma City's design, while simple, was executed flawlessly.  At the break, Westbrook broke first, seeking to cross Kidd's face while getting through the lane.  If it was open, great, but the purpose was to keep the cerebral Kidd away from the perimeter and Haywood from leaving his spot.  With both aims achieved, Harden set a pick on Marion, a pick immediately problematic for Dallas: Marion bodying up Durant with Terry between Harden and the basket meant Durant was free to roll over the top and Marion, with no space to go under the screen in pursuit, had going over the top behind Durant as his only choice.

To make matters worse, Perkins was floating to the top of the key, looking to either pick Terry in the event he and Marion switched or to set a second pick on Marion to ensure he wouldn't be able to challenge Durant's shot.  Dallas didn't switch, Perkins did his job and Durant had as clean of a catch of an inbounds pass with 1.4 seconds left as there could ever be.

Terry and Haywood saw this danger coming, but both did so well after the time anything could be done to make a worthwhile challenge of Durant's shot.  The idea of not-switching, on its own, isn't an awful idea: the height advantage between between Durant and Terry makes both any challenge Terry could do of a Durant shot and any effect of Terry on Durant catching the inbounds pass almost irrelevant given Durant's abilities.  And even if Marion has to fight over a screen -- as he had to do -- his height and athleticism allows him at least an opportunity to make a defensive play.

But not if he has to fight over two screens.  Haywood sagging off Perkins to defend the paint meant that not only was he not an option to switch onto Durant after Perkins screened Marion but that he also was so far removed from the play that, by the time he noticed the danger, he could only make it to the free-throw line by the time Durant had the ball.  Terry saw the trouble as well but, like Haywood, was too far away to do anything of note.  And with Nowitzki positioned to prevent a lob to the rim instead of roaming in the near-zone to deny any Thunder player a free catch of the ball, Sefolosha could make the simplest of passes to Durant.  Durant caught the pass in rhythm, Terry and Haywood might as well have been in Texas, and Durant finished clinically.

Dallas' defense couldn't have been any better of a match-up for Oklahoma City's design: not switching meant Harden and Perkins could stagger screens on Marion and electing to cover the inbounder meant Durant could catch a pass in space with any rotating defense too late to matter.  The league's reigning champions are now 0-3 thanks to the league's reigning scoring champion.

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