OKLAHOMA CITY -- For the Oklahoma City Thunder, "smallball" is only a label. Because in their small lineups, they still use a guy who's almost 7 feet tall at power forward. He just happens to have "small forward" listed next to his name on the roster sheet.
One of the most lethal lineup combinations the Thunder have to unlock their offensive firepower is to play Kevin Durant at power forward, with either Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams or Enes Kanter as the center. For example: In the team's most-used small lineup -- Russell Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, Durant and Ibaka -- the Thunder post a ridiculous 139.5 offensive rating and a 99.6 defensive rating for an eye-popping net of plus-39.9 in 38 minutes.
The general feeling by many throughout the league is playing Durant at the 4 is the Thunder's most effective lineup and best path in navigating through the Western Conference playoffs. For whatever reason, though, recently they've done little of it. In their last four games, Durant has played only 10 total minutes at the 4 (excluding lineups where he played less than a minute at it). This season, he's played 303 total minutes at power forward (again, not counting lineups of a minute or less).
Possibly not coincidentally, the Thunder are 2-2 in the past four games, with struggles on the offensive end popping up in both losses, where Durant barely played any 4. So why the reduction?
"We have it there, it's probably a little bit more matchup-driven for us," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "[The Cavs] pretty much stayed big, they didn't slide LeBron (James) down to the 4. They've done that some in the past, but they didn't do it. Playing (Timofey) Mozgov and Tristan Thompson and (Kevin) Love, you're going to get into a situation with that where Kevin (Durant)'s going to be constantly pounding in the post, pounding in the post and sometimes I think that can be really, really fatiguing and also put him in a situation for foul trouble. ... When you go small like that, I think you're trying to look at the matchups to make sure the matchups are good for you and you feel like defensively you can play across the frontline."
That's the standard question for the Thunder when it comes to smallball: Is it something they deploy to match up with what the other team is doing, or is it something that's most effective when being used to dictate matchups?
"I sometimes like trying to dictate that," Donovan said. "Certainly for us, I think what happens is trying to keep our team in rhythm in terms of substitutions. Just talking to Russell and Kevin and listening to how I can help them be efficient and effective and get into that rhythm, sometimes in that first quarter it's hard to do that. We're probably a little more likely to do that in the second quarter because those guys are coming back on the floor. But like for example, Golden State, they went small against us and I didn't want to go small. I wanted to try and stay big to see what that looked like in playing in that game."
That was one of the surprises from the Thunder's first game against the Warriors this season: The Thunder didn't play small much, instead combating the Warriors' small lineup by remaining traditionally big. The results were mixed, though as the game wore on it was more effective, as the Thunder found something with Kanter alongside Ibaka and Durant in the frontcourt. Maybe part of the thinking was to not reveal too much of their smallball look, or maybe it was an effort to dictate themselves.
Donovan seems to see the small lineup option for more special occasions, rather than a routine weapon to deploy on a nightly basis.
"There's been times where we've had some matchups where I felt like, 'OK, here's a frontcourt player who doesn't post up, but he's a really good offensive rebounder so you know what, this is a good matchup for us to go small and maybe make them adjust to us,'" Donovan said. "So sometimes you're caught adjusting to the other team, and sometimes when the team tries to force you to adjust, sometimes I've elected not adjust."
The Thunder feel their size is maybe their greatest roster advantage. They've gone to a recent combination with regularity playing Adams and Kanter together. Adams makes it possible with his unique ability to guard a lot of 4s, and as a duo, Kanter and Adams have a modest net rating of plus-4.8 in 66 minutes. It's an interesting wrinkle to watch, and one that could pay dividends in the postseason, but not one worth the expense of Thunder smallball.
It's only four games and maybe the matchups didn't quite work. But Durant at the 4 is a lethal offensive option and can even make the Thunder a more dynamic defensive team, especially when Ibaka is the 5 because it enables them to switch 1 through 5. The last full season Durant played (2013-14), he spent 30 percent of his minutes at power forward, posting a robust PER of 33.0 while the Thunder outscored opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions, via 82games.com. This season only about 18 percent of his minutes have been at power forward. The Thunder should be utilizing Durant at the 4 more than they are.
Playing Durant heavy minutes at power forward is asking a lot to add onto his already full plate, and while he's shown he can hold his own defending 4s, it's also not ideal to have that nightly wear and tear. Which might be the only reasonable explanation as to why Donovan has pulled back on it: Best to save it for the playoffs.