The Thunder have started out 2013 by going 2-2. Those two losses have come in the most stomach-churning of ways. The first was a dispiriting home blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, and the second was on Monday night to the Wizards, which I trust needs no further qualification.
One of the key elements in the Nets loss that I noticed was the performance of Joe Johnson. Johnson finished with a game high 33 points, but more importantly, finished 5-10 from 3-point range and a number of those shots came from one particular area on the court. Which area? It is the area that is inarguably one of the most efficient places to shoot.
The corner 3-point shot.
Layups are great and free throws are sublime, but no shot has taken on more meaning in the past few years as the corner-3. Why? It is a shorter 3-point shot (22 feet), it stretches and spaces the floor like no other, and it is producing a specialized kind of shooter in the league, which makes the point production even more pronounced. How pronounced? According to the data from late last season, the corner-3 has become the greatest point producing shot in the game.
Naturally, the best offensive teams and the best defensive teams in the league are going to be the ones who create and defend this shot the best. The teams and the coaches who put the most emphasis on taking and defending this shot are yielding dividends, and the teams who are not doing as well are being exploited.
Consider what NBA writer Zach Lowe reported a year ago:
Limiting attempts seems to matter more than the percentage of corner threes opponents make. That’s not surprising. Lots of studies have found that limiting raw three-point attempts matters more than opponent three-point percentage. The raw number of corner-three attempts allowed last season correlated more strongly with both winning percentage and overall defensive rating than shooting percentage on corner threes, according to work by Maroun and McGuire. It also correlated more strongly with winning percentage than a team’s defensive rebounding rate and the rate at which a team forced turnovers. (In general, the correlation between defensive rebounding and winning percentage is typically stronger than it was last season, according to historical data.)
In general, the amount of corner threes a team allowed last season correlated strongly with winning percentage as a few other key factors have done so in prior years, including how often a team allows and earns free throws.
Which brings us back to OKC. If you want a good measuring stick as to how well the Thunder defense is doing on any given night, pay close attention to how many open corner-3's they are giving up. Lowe had noted in the past that the Thunder were a poor corner-3 defending team, which is why they struggled so much early on trying to defend the Spurs in the regular season or the Heat in the Finals. OKC's defense fell apart once again in these two recent losses, so for the sake of some analysis, I took a look at the shots themselves and tried to break down both what the other team was trying to do as well as what the Thunder were doing wrong.
THUNDER VS NETS
Play 1: Nets set up a double-baseline screen in order to free up Joe Johnson in the left corner. The Nets set a good screen, effectively sealing out 3 Thunder players with their 2 screeners. Thabo Sefolosha gamely tries to get through it but Johnson hits the open look. The Nets were setting the table for things to come.
Play 2: I really like this play, not only because of the shot it produced, but because of how it gave Deron Williams so many options that the Thunder were forced to give up the long shot. Williams ran Reggie Jackson off a staggered set of baseline screens. While Jackson does his best to stay with Williams, once he is on Willams' hip the show is almost over. Williams actually passes up an easy drop-down pass to Kris Humphries, which likely would have produced a layup. Center Andray Blatche does a subtle but effective move by setting a back pick on Kevin Martin, changing Martin's momentum so that he cannot chase his man Keith Bogans as easily. Bogans smartly slides behind the back pick and gets a wide-open look.
Play 3: The Nets are preying on Russell Westbrook's over-aggressiveness here in the way Westbrook likes to go over the top of baseline screens. Williams fakes as if he's going to cut to the baseline just as in Play 2, but instead makes a sharp V-cut and slides behind Blatche for the corner-3.
Play 4: The first 3 plays are well executed offensive sets, but this last one is more about the Thunder's poor transition defense and Westbrook's failure to recover to find his man. Westbrook is one of the fastest and most explosive guys on the court, yet it takes him a good 5 seconds to read the Nets' offensive set, find the open man in the corner (Johnson, the hottest shooter on the floor), and then jog over to him and casually contest the corner-3.
On the other side of the coin, the Thunder have greatly improved as an offensive rebounding team this season, but as you can see in this case, it comes at the expense of having their guards, Westbrook and Martin, rotating to balance out the court in the event of a fast break the other way. After the shot goes up, Sefolosha is the only Thunder player above the free throw line, which makes for a fast break opportunity and allows Johnson to essentially sit in the corner of the court and wait for the pass to come.
Play 5: This is another well designed play, but the Thunder hurt themselves by making two fundamental errors. The first is when Deron Williams sets a screen for Gerald Wallace on the baseline, which allows Wallace to run straight to the rim. Westbrook, who is guarding Williams, does not switch with Martin, who is guarding Wallace. By not switching, Wallace catches the ball clean under the rim and both Martin and Westbrook are out of position. Wallace was a bit too far under the rim, but probably could have landed and finished had he wanted to. However, once again the Nets target the corner-3 and Wallace throws a great touch-pass to Johnson.
The second fundamental error made is when Sefolosha leaves his man Johnson to help out with Wallace. The standby rule in help defense is, never leave your man to help out on defense if your man is one pass away from the ball. Here, Sefolosha does just that and leaves the game's high scorer to hit another corner-3.
To be fair to the Thunder, a number of these plays were really well executed and produced some great looks.However, there is a bigger issue at play. The bigger issue is the fact that the Nets CLEARLY game-planned to make not just the 3-point shot, but specifically the left side corner-3, an essential part of their offense in order to beat the Thunder. They knew OKC struggles in guarding that spot and so Brooklyn exploited it again and again. Smart teams like the Spurs, Heat, and Clippers are going to make the Thunder pay unless they figure out a better way to shore up this defensive weakness, which as was established above, is the best point-producing shot in the game.
THUNDER VS WIZARDS
If the Nets loss was a lesson on how a good offense knows how to exploit a fallible defense, the loss to the Wizards was a lesson on what happens when defensive malaise allows the 2nd worst 3-point shooting team in the league to make 10-18 from long range.
Play 1: The Wizards run a basic high pick and roll. Westbrook and Serge Ibaka actually do a very good job of trapping it, turning A.J. Price away from the rim, too far too shoot, and with only one easy passing lane back up to the top of the key. However, Ibaka, the big man who came off the screen to cut off Price's drive, suddenly runs away from his strong defensive position, allowing Price to penetrate and then kick out to Martell Webster for the corner-3. Ordinarily, the big man who 'shows' on the PnR is supposed to rotate back to his own man after the drive is cut off, but the problem here is that Westbrook was already trailing the play and had no defensive position on Price. When Ibaka left his position, Price was effectively guarded by nobody and he penetrated until the corner pass opened up. On this play, Ibaka needed to stay where he was and he and Westbrook could have either held the trap or they could have switched the screen completely.
Play 2: Gambling in the back-court. Without a concerted and organized effort to press, this is almost always a guaranteed bad idea in the NBA. Even the most basic of ball fakes creates a 5 on 4 opportunity going the other way.
Play 3: We've seen this one plenty of times this season. I would surmise that Westbrook is giving up several of these kinds of shots every game because his opponents now know that if they run hard after Westbrook misses a shot, they are going to get a wide open look. Even worse is that they're running straight to the spot that now everyone seems to know the Thunder struggle to defend. Even the Wizards.
The issues highlighted above are a blend of good scheming by the opposition, a lack of an aggressive posture defensively, and unfortunately, a little bit of laziness. Each issue will need to be addressed however because the Thunder are going to face plenty of opportunities in the remainder of this season to learn to deal with this shot. I don't think OKC or any team in the league can simply decide to play the corner-3 straight up anymore; teams have to start taking the posture that they have to take it away completely if they want to have a sound defensive game plan.
An oft-repeated basketball defensive slogan is, "Protect the rim." It is time the Thunder add to that the phrase, "And take away the corner-3."