Thunder film study: how OKC ICE'd the Denver Nuggets in the 4th quarter

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder were flailing in the 1st half against Denver and running out of time in the 4th. What defensive adjustments did they make to give themselves a shot to win?

The Oklahoma City Thunder pulled out a come-from-behind victory over the Denver Nuggets Monday night, 115-113. The 4th quarter was an intense affair, as the Thunder were able to overcome the very kind of deficit that they fell short against the Warriors last week.

One of the "Captain Obvious" points to be made is that in order to complete a big comeback, you first have to be down by a large amount, and to be down by a large amount, it means that one or more things earlier in the game didn't go exactly according to plan. At various points during the game, most notably in the 1st quarter and in the 3rd, I wondered aloud whether the Thunder had any plan at all to slow down Ty Lawson's one man assault on the OKC perimeter defense.

Stopping a fast offense like the Nuggets often comes down to being able to slow down the ball at the point of attack in the offense, and the offense usually initiates with a high pick and roll. One of the growing trends on how to deal with this basic set is what is called ICE. If you are unfamiliar with it, go watch Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown walk you through it.

The basic premise for pick and roll defense is that it never wants to allow penetration down the lane (too many scoring options). The most common way to deter a ball handler from swinging around a pick and into the lane is what is called the "hard hedge" or the "hard show," which means that the defenders switch their men during the pick, the screen defender jumps out to cut off the path of the ball, which funnels the ball carrier the opposite way, and then the defenders switch back. ICE builds on this basic premise by removing the need for the switch. The on-ball defender takes an aggressive posture by shielding the screener, which forces the ball away from the lane and back to the sideline, eliminating the need for the switch as well as help from the weak side.

During the first 3 quarters, OKC was not aggressive in its pick and roll switching, trapping, and rarely used ICE. As a result, they were constantly trailing plays as Lawson worked his way again and again into the lane and the Nuggets had scored 95 points heading into the 4th. Lawson finished with 29 and 8 assists on the night against only a single turnover.

Here are but a few examples of how porous the Thunder defense was against Lawson in the early going.

Play 1 - Indecisiveness

In this play above, you can see two fundamental mistakes in how OKC plays their defense. In the first trial run, Lawson sets up a screen with J.J. Hickson. This is what we see:

Ice1

Russell Westbrook is ready to ICE Lawson, but Kendrick Perkins is way out of position, allowing Hickson an unencumbered path to the rim if he so chose. There is too little coordination and too much space.

This play doesn't develop, but instead Lawson runs it again with Kenneth Faried.

Ice2

Again, Westbrook applies ICE, but he is right in the middle of the court with way too much open space around him. An average ball handler would have no trouble exploiting this, let alone the lightning-quick Lawson. Ibaka is late on the containment and gives too much room for Farried to run, creating a shot at the rim for Lawson.

Play 2: Thunder players unprepared

This play is what happens when two guys are unprepared for how to play either straight up PnR defense or ICE defense. Lawson initiates the offense against Reggie Jackson, and Perry Jones is his screening support. Darrell Arthur moves to set the screen, and Jackson and Jones do not communicate or position themselves properly to contain Lawson. The result is this:

Ice3

Jones is ready to hedge, but in the opposite direction that Lawson is heading. It is easy for Lawson to shed Jackson even with a weak screen, and the result is an easy shot in the lane.

***

Fast forward to the 4th quarter. Now the situation is turning dire, and either the Thunder have to execute on defense or they are going to lose by double digits. (If you want to see how OKC improved on offense, I direct you to Royce Young's outstanding post on how the Thunder ripped up the Nuggets defense with repeated HORNS sets)

I am also about to start praising Derek Fisher, so hold onto your pantaloons.

Play 3: ICE stops the initial penetration

In this set, the Thunder disrupt what had been working for the Nuggets because their two old timers, Fisher, and Nick Collison, effectively run ICE. Observe their early recognition in this shot:

Ice4

You can actually see Fisher turning his head as he is both anticipating the direction of the screen (Andre Miller likes to drive right) and Collison is likely yelling at him to get ready to seal it off. Next, examine this screen shot and contrast it with Play 1 above.

Ice5

Fisher correctly timed his ICE hedge properly, which redirects Miller to the left sideline. Collison is nice and tight in his own containment, which means that Miller has no lane to drive. They stay with the play and easily switch back after the threat has subsided.

Play 4: Fisher ICE's the play again

In this play, Fisher is guarding Nate Robinson, who is not as quick as Lawson but still can explode to the rim. Notice how quickly Fisher takes away the potential screen:

Ice6

Robinson is left with little alternative but to either challenge Serge Ibaka or slow it down and allow Fisher to easily recover. The result is a badly missed fadeaway shot.

Play 5: Personnel matters

This defense is less about ICE and more about giving credit to Scott Brooks for staying with Fisher, who is doing an exceptional job in using his smarts and timing to blow up the high screens. Brooks goes with a 3 guard lineup, because by now one thing is obvious - Lawson is the only player on the court with whom the Thunder need to concern themselves. By going with a 3 guard lineup, Brooks has 3 solid defenders who are all capable of switching onto Lawson when the screen comes.

Ice7

Fisher is easily able to switch onto Lawson, and eventually Lawson has to give up the ball.

Play 6: Missing ICE, staying with the play

In this final sequence, which was arguably the biggest defensive stop in the 4th quarter (Durant followed it up with a 3-pointer that gave OKC the lead for good), Jackson and Fisher are once again ready to deal with Lawson. You can see that the pair are actually in perfect position to ICE Lawson again:

Ice8

Either Jackson is not ready for it or perhaps Fisher calls it off, because instead of ICE, they switch the PnR. Once again, this is a safe move because of the fact that OKC has 3 guards on the floor to stay with Lawson. Fisher does an outstanding job keeping an open stance and not give into any of Lawson's penetration moves, and the result is a long contested 3-pointer that doesn't come close.

***

To conclude, the grand question is why the Thunder weren't able to employ this kind of defensive focus earlier in the game, because clearly they have the roster to do it. Even if Fisher is not involved, the Thunder have some tremendous assets in Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, 2 long-armed guys who could really bottle up PnR's with ICE strategy.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of practice and discipline, two things that Fisher does have in abundance. Final props to him for helping to shut down Lawson and the Nuggets, and let us hope that OKC is ready for this kind of defensive pressure in games to come.

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