With the Thunder on the cusp of losing in the playoffs for the 3rd consecutive season after only winning a single game (Mavericks, Heat), we are left to wonder what of the myriad things that went wrong could have gone right.
Kevin Durant is struggling mightily against this suffocating defense that has a clear and obvious plan on how to wear down Durant and defeat him. They've done it for 3 games in a row and we're likely going to see the same thing again tonight. It makes us wonder though if there are any other ways to get Durant open looks against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies D.
Over the past two seasons, the Thunder have relied in late-game situations on a nifty play set that engages numerous players in order to get Durant an open look at the top of the key. We have written about it HERE and HERE and Daily Thunder has noted it as well.
In brief, the play involves the point guard swinging the ball to the corner and then the PG sets a pin-down screen on Durant, who is waiting at the baseline. When Durant comes off the pin-down screen, the screener rolls to the rim. The set is simple, but by creating this off-the-ball 2-man game, Durant's options are numerous where at worst he's looking at an open jumper at the free throw line.
Enter: Tony Allen.
From Zach Lowe's great piece today on the Thunder-Grizzlies:
After the Grizzlies were eliminated last season, I had a long talk with Tony Allen about how he'd defend the play on which the Thunder leaned in crunch time - a simple pin-down play on which Russell Westbrook would pass the ball to another guard on the perimeter player, scamper down to the right block, and screen for Durant as the scoring champ popped up for a jumper. How would Allen handle that play if he were guarding Durant? Would he shoot the gap? Ask for help? Switch?
Allen responded that he'd simply fight through the screen and stay as close to Durant as he could. He'd just "lock and trail," he said. I asked him how he would do that, and it was almost as if the question made no sense to someone with his skill set. His response was, basically, "I'd just do it." But how? "You just have to do it." Yeah, but is there some sort of technique or timing or secret to it? "Man, you just do it." We went on like that until I gave up.
Allen might have guarded Durant more in Game 4 than in any prior game of this series, and he had a bunch of chances to "just do it" on that pin-down play. And, with some strategic grabbing, shoving, and general Tony Allen-ness, he did it.
Allen feels comfortable chasing Durant over the pick, voluntarily putting himself behind Durant, because he knows his partner here (Jerryd Bayless) will leave Fisher in order to plant himself in front of Durant while Allen hounds him from behind. Allen has been a bit more of a gambler than most defenders dare to be against Durant, and he can play that way because he knows his four teammates will have his back if he gambles himself out of position for a beat - in part because they've developed a nearly perfect five-man defensive chemistry in Memphis, but also in part because those teammates have close to zero respect for any other Oklahoma City player.
If you take a look at the plays that Lowe highlights, like this one below, you will see how little respect ANYBODY gives to the screener Derek Fisher:
To be sure, part of the problem is that the timing is off. Durant is setting up too high and breaking for the ball way too early for Fisher to be really effective. It's not so much a pin-down screen as a side pick and roll play.
However, the lack of respect that Fisher is offered is alarming. First, the referees have no problem with Allen physically moving Fisher a good 8 feet out of the way as Allen fights through the screen, and they're willing to let Allen hang onto Durant as he comes off what is left of the screen.
Secondly however, as Lowe notes, the Grizz do not care AT ALL about Fisher finishing this play. His man Jarryd Bayless doesn't even look at Fisher to fade to the 3-point line or to dive to the rim. Honestly, I can't blame him. If this were Russell Westbrook setting the screen, he would be occupying both Bayless and a weak-side big to seal off the rim. Fisher though? He poses no threat at all, and if by chance he did get an open lane, Marc Gasol is in good position to stop that as well. The net result is that Durant is sandwiched between two guys while Fisher wonders why he's standing all by himself.
What is the solution to this conundrum? If the Thunder are going to use this set again (and I think they should):
1) Durant needs to allow the play to actually develop. Wait for Fisher to get to the baseline before starting the cut.
2) Scott Brooks needs to better prepare the referees for this play by telling them what the Grizzlies are doing. Allen should not be allowed to move a player like he does here or hang onto Durant as he comes off the screen. If Zach Randolph is going to get the calls he's been getting off the ball, then Durant should be as well.
3) Fisher has to commit to a spot on the court. I don't trust him to finish, but he needs to either aggressively get to the 3-point line or slide down to the baseline to give Durant an easy target, and then Fisher needs to shoot that shot WITH CONFIDENCE (tm - Hubie Brown).
4) Don't use Fisher as the screener. Use a guy who knows how to finish the play. Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka or even Kevin Martin would be more effective. Martin is a wisp, but he at least he understands spacing.
Let us hope that the Thunder do not abandon this play because it is their best shot at getting Durant into a scoring zone. However, they must not waste the opportunity with bad screens and the wrong personnel when the time arrives.