The Oklahoma City Thunder offense has gone through uneven stretches this season. Two weeks ago they struggled to put up points against teams such as the Jazz and Nuggets. Last week they were dumping 127 points on one of the league's better defenses. A big reason why is only because Kevin Durant is not only producing points of his own at a high rate, but because his presence as a playmaker has continued as well. As a result, Serge Ibaka in particular has flourished. Over the past 5 games, Ibaka is averaging 18 PPG while shooting 61% from the floor and 50% from 3-point range.
One of the big reasons why these two have produced so efficiently is that it appears as if the Thunder have finally figured out a viable solution to one of the remaining few things that can give Durant trouble - the aggressive trap 40 feet away from the rim. What teams had been doing, and we saw this in the Thunder's losses to the Nets, Trail Blazers, and Jazz, is to wait until the 4th quarter and then begin aggressively trapping Durant too far from the rim to have any easy plays available. He would get stuck against the sideline and have no angles to use and no outlets to throw to, and no Westbrook to make the defenses pay. The result was several painful 4th quarter collapses were OKC could not generate any offense.
In the win over the Warriors however, we saw the makings of a solution. In that game the score was close, and on a night when Durant was bearing down toward a personal Ulysses S. Grant, it is not unreasonable to think the Warriors would have used a similar technique. However, this time the Thunder had a plan, and it involved Durant and Ibaka utilizing a high screen and roll. Here are 3 sequences where the Warriors attempted to trap Durant far from the rim:
As you can see, this is pure 2-man game between Durant and Ibaka. They both anticipate the trap coming, so Ibaka knows where the ball is going to come from and where he needs to be in order to receive it. The result is 3 wide open looks from a spot where Ibaka shoots a high percentage. A few observations:
- The Thunder play the Blazers tonight. You WILL see them attempt this defensive strategy to try and keep the ball out of Durant's hands.
- This type of play works primarily because Durant keeps the ball in the middle of the court where he has both space and, this is key, a passing angle. If he veers too far to the right or left, the degree of difficulty on the pass increases.
- Secondarily, these plays work because of timing. Ibaka has to move in and out of the screen at the right time in order to move his own defender away from the rim. Durant has to time his pass properly in order to give Ibaka space to work. This is no small thing, and every player struggles with it. I even remember a young Tim Duncan pre-2003 struggling with how to pass out of double-teams. It takes time, but for that Durant, it is starting to click.
- Ibaka, still a rudimentary offensive player learning the nuances of offense, always benefits when the decision-making is straight forward. In these sequences, he simply needs to read the trap and then roll to the lane and wait for the pass. The finish is simply a matter of catching and shooting.
- As this play develops and Ibaka feels more and more confident, the next level is the fact that the ball is now behind the trap so Ibaka is looking at a 3 on 2 situation. If the defense closes on Ibaka, an easy bounce-pass yields a lay-up.
- Personnel is key. This play works with Ibaka as the screener, it would work with Nick Collison as the screener, and it might even work with Steven Adams as the screener. It will NOT work with Kendrick Perkins as the screener.
- If we see the Blazers apply this strategy, I would anticipate that it will be in the 4th quarter when Perkins is on the court. It is my hope that if and when this happens, Brooks will recognize it as such and either switch the personnel or take Durant off the ball handling duties.
- WTLC Daily Loud Links: January 21, 2014
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- Oklahoma City Thunder Player Grades: Kevin Durant and the gang turn the ship around
- Recap: Kevin Durant scores career-high 54 as the Oklahoma City Thunder overwhelm the Golden State Warriors, 127-121
- J.A. Sherman and Phil Naessens talk Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka, and Kevin Durant's wrist