The Thunder offense has a new look this year. Forced to abandon the iso-heavy offense that carried the day a year ago, the Thunder have made great strides in executing actual offensive sets with intelligent playmaking, and the transition is beginning to take hold on a regular basis. The Thunder have run off five consecutive wins (3 against potential playoff teams) by an average winning margin of 22 points. What has made these wins satisfying is that in a way, the Thunder are still learning to play consistent offensive basketball, but because of the way they are learning to play, their offensive talent is better leveraged even when they play a good defensive team like the 76ers. The result is that the Thunder offense is improving and better yet, the team passing is one the rise. OKC is now 7th in the league at 22.7 assists per game, whereas in the past they had been almost always dead last.
There were two passing plays in particular in the Thunder's win over the Hornets that I felt were indicative of this positive growth. In fact, these plays are becoming a regularity so I feel that it is important to point them out now specifically because if you are coming late to the Thunder party, you might not know that these plays rarely worked in the past. Basic sets like pick-and-rolls would get rushed, fast break opportunities would get wasted, and we were left wondering what would happen when the young Thunder would fix these fundamental issues. Our patience is being rewarded now.
1. Dragging the Net
In this first pass, Kevin Durant collects the rebound and brings the ball up the court himself, much like LeBron James might do. It is not a fast break opportunity, as the Hornets are all in good defensive position. What Durant does once he gets to the 3-point line is an extremely subtle but noticeable playmaking read; he does what I like to call 'dragging the net.' Here is the video sequence, first uninterrupted and then with some annotation.
Even though Durant can see that the Hornets are back in time, he also sees that there is nobody protecting the rim. If he can break down one defender, an easy basket awaits.
In the past, (and probably still in the future), Durant would drive hard at the rim himself. In this case, he eyes an opportunity to break down both his own man as well as his teammate Thabo Sefolosha's man, Greivis Vasquez. After a nifty move to elude Al-Farouq Aminu, Durant sets his sites on Vasquez and engages with this second Hornets defender. By dragging his fishing net across the Hornets' perimeter defense, Durant has occupied 2 different players who are chasing him horizontally, thereby freeing up Sefolosha to cut straight to the rim. Durant's playmaking created the space and Sefolosha read the play by cutting as soon as Durant made his move.
The biggest key in the sequence is not simply the nifty handle that Durant now sports, but how the Thunder offense as a whole reads and recognizes these types of situations. It is no longer just one guy making a move and everyone else watching, but everyone else recognizing the opportunity at the same time and helping to finish the play.
The greatest master of open court playmaking, Magic Johnson, did this type of thing regularly, but just as important was the fact that his teammates knew that if Magic was running, they had better be running right along with him.
2. The Pocket Pass
In this second passing play, we get a chance to see Russell Westbrook continue his growth as a player. Regardless of whether you care about how many assists he tallies by the end of the night, what is important is the way in which Westbrook learns to recognize offensive opportunities and then what he chooses to do with them.
The pick-and-roll is a staple of every NBA offense. In the past, the Thunder's use of it could be charitably called 'rudimentary.' Typically, if Westbrook was running his man off of a screen set by Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins, that meant one of two things: 1) Westbrook was shooting a jumper; or 2) Westbrook was attempting a shot at the rim. On its most superficial level, the PnR can be colloquially seen by the ball handler as, "Set ME up."
However, the true genius behind a well-executed PnR is that it is not actually about the ball handler, but about the screener. It should be a play understood as, "I'm gonna set YOU up." Watch how Westbrook handles it here.
Westbrook engages the offense left as Perkins fakes a screen. This may not seem like a big deal, but in reality this subtle shift in positioning allows Westbrook the attack position that he wants. Perkins can now set a real screen on Westbrook's man Vasquez as Westbrook curls back toward the lane. Perkins seals of Vasquez completely, which gives the Thunder what they are looking for: a 2-on-1 situation.
Even as recently as a year ago, Westbrook would have come off the curl, taken a look at the slow-footed Lopez, and either pulled up for a jumper or rocketed right to the rim. To his credit, that works an awful lot of the time. What it does not accomplish however is create any sort of uncertainty in the defense, which is what the whole point of a 2-on-1 situation offers. A 2-on-1 situation should force a defender to believe that either offensive player is a legitimate threat. When that happens, neither one gets defended as strongly.
This time, Westbrook has Lopez on his heels but then Westbrook hits the breaks and waits for the play to develop. He understands that he does not have to do something amazing here to finish the play. He just needs to wait. Likewise, his screening partner Perkins does not rush the play either, but makes sure that Vasquez cannot get back into the action. Once that job is done, Perkins can roll to the rim, and Westbrook is waiting for him. Westbrook looks up, sees that Perkins is on his way, and then drops a pocket pass, a pass that originates from his right 'pocket,' to the trailing Perkins, who as an unencumbered path to the rim.
Here is one of the masters of the pocket pass:
Stay tuned as we continue to examine how the Thunder offense evolves this season.