Over the summer time, Kevin Durant often said that he was working the most on his post-up game. In the first three months of play, we've seen Durant be true to his word. He has become more and more adept at starting plays with his back to the basket. We should hope that the more Durant gets used to the position the more he likes it, because it frees him up in a way to create offense that can become almost impossible to defend.
Durant's post positioning has come in spurts, and what I have found in watching these last two weeks of peaks and valleys is that the Thunder's offensive dynamic seems to run in correlation to Durant's willingness to be a post player instead of a simple jump shooter. Further more, he and the team are adding a wrinkle that frees up Durant in much better spots where he not only has the option to shoot, but also to create.
To examine more closely, I've put together two separate series of plays to see how Durant's post play as well as the team's offense are developing.
In this first sequence, we see Durant posting up on both the left and right blocks against some formidable defenses:
1. Durant takes on Metta World Peace on the left wing and is given space to work. This pivot and face-up position is the start that we're most familiar with. From this spot, Durant is either going to give a little shimmy-shake or he's going to drive to the baseline. We rarely see him drive to the middle of the lane from this spot, probably because he knows he can get to the baseline so easily. Metta makes the mistake of giving up the baseline and is caught completely out of position. Durant sees it, and has the option of taking a power dribble and pulling up or driving it all the way to the rim. With no weakside help, the rim is open for the uncontested slam.
2. In this second play, Durant takes on Kobe Bryant straight up. What makes this play impressive is that Durant shows off his improving lower body strength. Kobe may not be as quick as he once was, but he is still in top notch position and still cannot hold off Durant from backing him into the lane. Once KD establishes position eight feet from the rim, the turnaround jumper is a gimme.
3. Against the Celtics, we see a similar play set up as in #1. This time though, Mickael Pietrus does a much better job closing off the baseline than Metta did. However, this time we see Durant take the quick dribble and pull up 15 feet out on the baseline. The key to this play is superior footwork - watch Durant lean to his left, but then use his right leg to stretch back all the way into the lane so he can be leaning into the jumper instead of fading away.
4. In this final play, we finally see the Thunder use a little bit of screening action in order to get Durant into an advantageous position. Durant sets the screen on Russell Westbrook's man Avery Bradley, and the Celtics have to switch, lest Westbrook have a clear path to the rim. Once Durant has the ball in the deep post, there is little that the smaller Avery can do to prevent the shot from going up, and in fact Durant draws the foul for the and-1 play. This sequence is important because there are few players who can actually guard Durant effectively in the post, so the addition of the screening play gives the Thunder the choice of which man they want guarding KD down low.
These previous plays are common sequences we've seen this season. As of late the Thunder have begun unveiling a superior post-up play for Durant that I think they would do well to use more often, but the play has some kinks to work out. We know we've seen Durant post up on the free throw line (also called 'the nail') a la Dirk Nowitzki. The area of the court gives the tall Durant lots of options to work from. Here are four sequences where the Thunder used this high post set-up:
It is important to note that in each of these four sequences, it is the exact same play. The point guard brings up the ball and then passes to James Harden, who is on the left elbow. Harden is dangerous from this spot because he knows how to use screens himself, so he can occupy the defense's attention while the Thunder work away from the ball. Once Harden receives the pass, the guard cuts down the lane and Durant pops up to the nail.
1. In the first sequence involving Reggie Jackson, Harden receives the pass and then waits for the weak-side action to occur. Jackson is supposed to go to Durant and set a pindown screen on Durant's man, which would enable Durant to pop up to the free throw line unencumbered. Unfortunately, Jackson doesn't quite know how to do this. He doesn't really set a screen on anybody, and then just kind of fades to the corner and waits. The result is that Durant is only left with one option, and he forces the contested jump shot.
2. In the second sequence, Westbrook is the pindown screener. He does a little bit better in getting in the way of Durant's man Danilo Gallinari, which gives Durant one additional advantage - he can catch the ball a few feet closer to the rim. Westbrook's screen is not so good though that he prevents Gallinari from fighting through it to prevent a quick move by Durant, but the deeper post position is enough. Durant takes a power dribble to get a few feet closer to the rim and then sinks an eight footer.
3. In the third play, Westbrook misses the pindown completely, instead slipping the screen and cutting to the rim. I like the cut to the rim, because it occupies the defense a little bit more and makes Westbrook a threat instead of just a bystander. Unfortunately, by not setting a more sound screen he both prevents Durant from coming clean and also from forcing the Denver defense to make a decision whether to stay with Westbrook or chase Durant. No additional space is created in the lane because of the screen, so Durant is only left with one option. He has to catch the ball higher than in play #2, but fortunately Gallinari is thinking about the previous play and guards the lane. Durant steps back and sinks the easy 17 footer.
4. This play actually ends up in a turnover, but I would argue it was the best-run play of the lot. Westbrook sets a hard pindown screen and Gallinari just runs over him for what should have been a defensive foul. If the play had developed, not only would Durant have had a wide open catch 15 feet from the rim for an easy jumper, but if the Nuggets had tried to close on him, Westbrook could have rolled to the rim for a layup.
When the game needed to be put away, OKC went to the exact same play three times in a row for what should have been three opportunities to score. Despite these plays not working perfectly because there are still some nuances to the pindown that OKC needs to solidify, we can see that it is a great late-game set for the Thunder. The play puts the ball in the hands of Durant in the middle of the court, and he has both space and options to decide what he is going to do. Let's look for this set when the game is on the line in the near future and how Durant's decision-making process evolves through it.