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FiveThirtyEight

On Tuesday night, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder tipped things back in their direction, cruising past the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 and leveling the NBA’s Western Conference finals, 2-2. Westbrook was at his aggressive, pinballing best. But the most eye-popping number of the night might not have been among those on his 40-point, 10-assist, five-steal stat line; it may have been the Thunder’s 21-0 edge in fast-break points.

An enormous edge like that usually implies a turnover-laden performance by one team, but the Spurs only turned the ball over 13 times, or on 12.7 percent of their offensive possessions. That’s identical to their turnover percentage in the rest of the playoffs. But in Game 4, those turnovers turned into nearly twice as many fast-break points as the Spurs had allowed per game in the playoffs.

Why? Not all turnovers are the same. A live-ball turnover, such as steal, tends to give the offense an opportunity to attack a defense that is short a defender or two and out of position. A dead-ball turnover, such as an offensive foul, allows the defense to get all five of its players into position. This difference is significant: Research by Jacob Frankel at Hickory-High (using data from NBAwowy.com) found that NBA teams this season had an effective field goal rate of 61.5 percent on possessions after a live-ball turnover, compared to 46.5 percent after a dead-ball turnover.

Again looking at NBAwowy, we can see that just 54.2 percent of the Spurs’ turnovers this season were on steals. But Tuesday night against the Thunder, 12 of the Spurs’ 13 turnovers were caused by steals.

San Antonio Spurs Turnovers per  Game

steals_levy

It wasn’t just steals that led to those transition opportunities. The Thunder had eight blocks in the game, many of which turned into transition opportunities (blocked shots count as field goal attempts, not turnovers).

One game and 13 turnovers is a small sample size, but some of the Spurs’ struggles appeared to come in the pick-and-roll. According to mySynergySports, the Spurs pick-and-roll ball handlers turned the ball over four times on 19 plays — a turnover rate of 21 percent; the Spurs turned the ball over on just 14 percent of pick-and-roll possessions across the entire season.

Athletic and aggressive, the Thunder can be incredibly disruptive on defense, quickly converting those disruptions into efficient offensive opportunities. Before Game 4, the Spurs had mostly short-circuited that ability with precise execution. Not so Tuesday night.

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