Fans of Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams have been delighted with their chemistry on the court this season. Steven and Russell are throw-down bros who love to rattle the rim, and we've been treated to plenty of big slam dunks in the past few weeks.
While fans outside of OKC may be surprised by Adams' athleticism, in fact it has been one of his greatest attributes from day one, and over the past few weeks we've seen Westbrook set up Adams repeatedly for dunks during the game from all variety of angles.
One set play in particular that we've seen quite a bit is the high pick and roll set up where Westbrook then leads Adams for the ally-oop slam. It's a fantastic play to watch because it capitalizes on Westbrook's explosiveness off the dribble and Adams' assault on the rim.
While the play seems straightforward enough, I'd like to point out two critical elements.
1. Screening the screener
Adams slips his screen that he had set up for Westbrook. This makes sense, given that Westbrook really doesn't need a screen to beat his man off the dribble; what is really accomplished is that Adams in effect is pulling his big defender out of the lane.
As Adams slides towards the rim, Serge Ibaka steps up and sets a screen on Adams' man, giving Adams a free run to the basket.
2. Westbrook reads the defense
As Westbrook comes off the screen, he is staring at a 2 on 1 situation and does have a lane that he can exploit. However, in this instance he reads Ibaka's man, who has helped off Serge as he sets his screen. Ibaka's defender is completely oblivious as to what is going on behind him. Meanwhile, Dion Waiters in the corner has occupied the 2nd help defender, who doesn't know whether to halt Adams or stay at home to guard the corner. In effect, he does neither.
The play has been set up properly, and not only does Adams have an unencumbered path, but there is no rim protection who can in any way alter the lob or the dunk.
The whole setup is sound because any time you can put Westbrook in a 2 on 1 situation with a roll man attacking the rim, good things happen. That said, I noticed in the Thunder's win over the Hornets that they were getting a little sloppy and overaggressive with this play, sometimes with Westbrook tossing up the pass when Adams had nowhere to run. Just like in the Clippers' middle pick and roll, or the Spurs high-low plays, the setup is everything. If you don't set it up right, the defense knows that it's coming, and it was clear to me that Charlotte had scouted and prepared for this lob set.
That is, until they ran this nifty play in the 3rd quarter:
The setup is identical to the first play, but with some noticeable differences from the defense.
First, notice that Adams' defender Spencer Hawes has not followed him to the top of the key. They know that Adams is either setting a high screen or planning to slip it, but either way he is not a threat 25 feet from the rim. Instead, Hawes sags into the lane and waits, watching both for Adams' inevitable roll as well as sliding to his right to cut off Westbrook's driving lane.
The defense seems to think, at worst, they can either force Westbrook to lob another bad pass, or simply give up the elbow jump shot (which Westbrook has not been hitting lately). Objectively, this is a solidly executed defensive set.
That is, until Westbrook exploits the variable in it.
Westbrook stays with the dribble until the precise moment when he's occupying both Hawes as well as the man guarding the corner, Marvin Williams. Notice now that both men are looking at Westbrook and have both their feet in the lane. Westbrook fires a perfect outlet pass to Ibaka at a moment and angle for which the defense wasn't ready. Williams has no chance to recover in time and gives up the corner-3 to Ibaka.
In my opinion, this is solid play construction. It is effective because the play itself is simple to set up and execute, but it gives Westbrook 3 viable choices and they all look exactly the same in the setup. It reminds me of how quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady talk about play action passing; the ball hand-off and the ball-fake have to look exactly the same, otherwise the defense will not be fooled into indecision. So it is here; by creating an identical play set where even the pass looks like it might go to Adams, the Thunder and Westbrook have created an ideal corner-3 opportunity.
Look for this set up in future games, as well as how Westbrook processes his decisions along the way.