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Sniper A-Mo: The Oklahoma City Thunder's secret weapon

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Anthony Morrow's post-All Star break surge has opened up the Thunder offense to wreak panic upon opposing defenses.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of what Sunday's box score may show, we've already established that for the Thunder to make any sort of noise in the postseason, they're going to have to do it on the offensive end. Even in allowing just 75 points to Miami, the defense is far from fixed, and it will be up to Oklahoma City's elite offense - which failed to score in double digits for just the first time in the past 22 games - to provide the firepower to overcome opponents.

It's also no secret that the two biggest components in making that offense tick are MVP-candidate and soul destroyer, Russell Westbrook, along with his pick-and-roll partner in crime, Enes Kanter. Westbrook tied his career-high in assists with 17 on Sunday, en route to his 10th triple double of the season (Official score keepers later rescinded the triple-double). He's been a playmaker ever since he came into the league, but now he is doing it better than ever, and that's thanks in large part to finally having a big man he can rely on in the paint.

Kanter, for his part, has utilized Westbrook's otherworldly ability to draw defenders to gain position off screens, and it's resulted in easy looks for the center. Check out his shot chart in his 14 games with the Thunder, and you see just how many of those looks are coming in the paint.

Kanter shot chart

Almost all of the attempts are coming right at the rim, and Kanter has done such a great job not settling that when the midrange shots do become available, they're usually so wide open that he has no problem knocking them down. In his 14 games with the Thunder, Kanter is averaging 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds on 56 percent shooting. Sunday was also his fifth 20-10 game in those 14, which is five more than any previous Thunder center had in the franchise's seven-year history in Oklahoma City.

That, in itself, is a wildly effective two-man game, and both Westbrook and Kanter - as well as Scott Brooks - deserve tons of credit for recognizing what has worked and executing the sets effectively. Where credit is also due, however, is to the Thunder wing man that has used a post-All Star surge to give the Thunder the spacing needed for Westbrook and Kanter to operate effectively, Anthony Morrow.

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A central criticism of the Thunder over the years - regardless of efficiency numbers - has been the lack of imagination and spacing on offense. The critique, right or wrong, was that three guys stood around watching Durant and Westbrook create offense out of thin air. There were certainly legs to that criticism, but in Durant's absence, and with the insertion of Kanter and Morrow, the Thunder offense has transformed in a truly well-oiled machine.

Morrow has provided the outside threat that the offense has so badly needed, after the likes of Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Derek Fisher, Andre Roberson and, more recently, Kyle Singler have failed. While all of those guys have shown flashes in the past, none have been consistent enough to completely torch an opponent's game-plan.

Morrow, on the other hand, has seen his minutes steadily rise and, with that, increased playing time and increased shot attempts since the All Star break. In spite of that, he's shooting at a 50.6 percent clip from behind the arc, well-above his season (and career) average. Here is his shot chart in that time:

Morrow shot chart

You can see he is scorching from just about every area on the floor, particularly behind the arc. How is he doing it? Largely just being the right guy in the right place, and capitalizing on those opportunities.

This is from Sunday's game, and it's worth checking out for the simple fact that Russell Westbrook isn't on the floor. That's important because, as we'll look into in a second, Westbrook's sheer dominance is a major factor in creating open shots for guys like Morrow. This set here suggests that, beyond Westbrook, the system in play is working, and that's thanks in similarly large part to the effective play of the Thunder's bigs.

Kanter was dominant inside all afternoon, and he draws the attention of three Heat defenders. The set starts with McGary receiving the ball on the side wing, essentially in a clear-out situation. This is a pseudo-variation of the latest pick-and-roll set that the Thunder has installed where the side screen comes lower on the block, making it more difficult for the defense to react in the crammed space.

Operating from that side, with Kanter down low, and shooters spaced around the perimeter, leaves the defense with decisions to make on how to approach it. Again, Westbrook isn't in here, but D.J. Augustin is a perimeter threat, and just his presence at the 3-point line means the Heat will have to choose between guarding him, Waiters and Morrow.

Miami is almost in a 2-3 zone here, and McGary draws the attention of one of the three men down low, while the other two are focusing on Kanter. The defenders up top are then left having to pick their poison. Waiters would be the obvious choice to leave open, but he is on a wing on his own while Augustin and Morrow are on the other. That leaves Mario Chalmers essentially having to choose which shooter to guard. He actually gets a decent closeout on Morrow, but not enough to really deter the shot.

Two other things to note are, 1) how easily Morrow could swing to an open Augustin, should Chalmers have closed even sooner and 2) Kanter's position for the offensive rebound. The Thunder continues to be the top rebounding team in basketball, and Kanter and Adams - in the absence of Ibaka - have transformed into double-double machines, with Adams pulling down 10 rebounds of his own against Miami.

This is just one example, and Morrow only connected on two 3-pointers in the Miami game, but it's a representation of how the Thunder system has evolved beyond Russell Westbrook simply making plays by being a freak athlete that defenses have to load up on. Now, with the right personnel even off the bench, defenses have to pick their poisons, and with Morrow as hot as he has been, it's just a matter of waiting for them to choose incorrectly.

Of course, the Thunder do have Westbrook, and it's when he's on the floor that Morrow has seen even better looks.

Spot Up opportunities

This first example is great because it's the perfect encapsulation of how the Thunder's pick-and-roll game, combined with proper spacing, can simply overwhelm a defense. Westbrook and Adams set up to run a basic pick and roll, and Westbrook draws two defenders on his own. He tosses a pass before Adams even looks, another sign of the growing trust between the two. Adams corrals the pass - something that isn't always a given with Thunder bigs - but is swarmed by collapsing defenders. The problem is that Morrow's man also collapses to stop the easy dunk, and that leaves him wide open in the corner. It's a credit to Adams for already maturing enough to know that that pass will be there, and of course a credit to Morrow both for being in that spot and knocking down the shot.

And just in case the defense doesn't account for Adams, here's what happened to the Heat when they didn't send proper help and had to account for Morrow in the corner:

Chalmers still has to come down to help off Morrow, and Morrow still could have had an easy look from 3, but the rest of the defense is too spaced out. That leaves Adams with a full head of steam coming at his only defender, and he is strong enough around the rim to win that battle, even over a big body like Hassan Whiteside.

This is a less extreme iteration of the first set, this time with Westbrook playing off the ball and Augustin handling the point guard duties. The basics are still there, with a pick up top and movement along the baseline. The issue is that the cutter on the baseline is Westbrook, who easily beats his man. Adams uses a strong roll, and with both he and Westbrook coming into frame as options near the rim, Morrow's defender has to cheat off. It's not a ton of space, but Morrow is so red-hot that even the tiniest morsel of airspace could spell death for a defense.

This one, meanwhile, could just be called the "Russell Westbrook terrifies opposing defenses into forgetting about the rest of the guys on the court" set. Morrow camps in the corner, and Westbrook does what he does as well as anybody in the NBA: get to the rim. There are times in the past when Westbrook's alpha dog nature would have forced the shot there and, again, that's not necessarily bad because he is proving that he can get shots at the rim essentially whenever he wants. Still, Atlanta's defense is well aware of this and just about everyone on the court runs in to make sure he doesn't make another ridiculous Westbrookian shot.

Westbrook is proving more and more that he is willing to pass, though, especially when he has teammates like Morrow that continue to reward that trust. Again, there's no way for the defense to completely account for Westbrook, and the second they try and send in help, it's Morrow there lurking in the corner to make them pay.

Morrow's quick release is on full display here, as well. Westbrook seems to have mastered putting the ball exactly where Morrow likes it, and it's a matter of catching and releasing with as little extra movement as possible. The catch is actually almost simultaneous with the release itself. That makes it impossible for a defender, who is already cheating in, to get out in time for any sort of a closeout.

Transition opportunities

Of course, the Thunder is a team that thrives on the fast break, largely because Westbrook loves to push the pace. Again, he's one of the best in the league in transition, and his speed and athleticism make him an absolute nightmare to deal with in the open court. Defenses continue to try and put bodies in front of him without fouling him, but being too conservative with Westbrook can once again leave them susceptible to attacks from others.

This was in the midst of Morrow starting to feel it against Atlanta, so as Westbrook gathers the rebound he is already looking to feed his red-hot teammate. The Hawks, meanwhile, see Westbrook dribbling in the open court and focus just a little too much on that, allowing him to complete a crosscourt pass to Morrow. From there, it's just a matter of Morrow again using that quick release to complete the play.

One more time: Russell Westbrook in the open court, with the defense focused on that, Morrow silently lurking behind, and Westbrook paying that off. It really shouldn't have been a secret to Atlanta at this point. Morrow had already cooked them for 5 threes and essentially brought the team back from the dead. That's the problem opposing defenses are faced with, though, because the second they start accounting for Morrow, it leaves Westbrook more space to operate and score on his own.

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Westbrook's growth as a playmaker is at the center of all of this, but Morrow's hard work in not abandoning his game deserves mounds of credit as well.

The Thunder have searched for a reliable 3-point option basically ever since the Harden trade. Kevin Martin was actually pretty good at it, and having him in the lineup gave the Thunder a season with a historically great point differential. But he departed after one year and, from there, the reigns were passed to the likes of Lamb, Fisher and Jones - none of which seemed ready to consistently run with it.

Morrow didn't start off hot, either, and in classic Thunder fashion, saw fewer minutes than he probably should have. That's essentially what happened to those guys before him as well, only when the minutes finally did start coming back, he didn't fold and fail to take advantage the way they did. Instead, he has gotten even better, and his reliable shooting is transforming an offense that most thought would shrivel up and die without Kevin Durant.

If that isn't enough, his emotion seems to genuinely ignite his teammates, as evidenced by just about every one of those clips above. He's an emotional firecracker, and he seems to thrive on firing up his teammates. That's equally important for a young team that is essentially without any leader on the court beyond Westbrook. Morrow is still a new guy, but sinking threes and being a genuinely fun personality can go a long way in making things more comfortable for your teammates.

That's where we are with Morrow. He signed in the offseason as that final weapon for Westbrook and Durant, only injuries quickly foiled that from ever properly coming to fruition. It took some time to settle in, but in the process of learning his new teammates, he never wavered from who he is. That is, a deadly shooter.

Now, his point guard is playing at a MVP level and his big man is becoming an interior threat unlike anything Oklahoma City has ever seen before. For the Thunder, Anthony Morrow has become the silent sniper: waiting in the wings, lurking just out of sight, and ready to strike the moment his teammates may draw one defender too many.