In the Thunder's relatively easy win over the Grizzlies, there were precious few dramatic moments as OKC was able to keep the struggling Grizz at arm's length most of the night. Aside from the Euro-Russ move and Durant's 2nd half daggers, our eyes were mostly drawn to the Thunder bench, which is beginning to evolve into something functional, if not potent.
Nothing super fancy in today's Film Room, but as several noted in the game thread, Dion Waiters had a very strong game. Not only was he effective at getting to the rim, but he was also looking to set up his teammates. Waiters finished with 3 assists on the night, two of which are below to his fellow youngster and the Thunder's promising rookie, Cameron Payne.
For all of the criticisms against Dion (thoroughly documented, well, everywhere), one thing that he is inarguably good at is driving the ball at the rim. He's a deceptively good ball handler, which is as weird to type as it is to think, but it happens to be true. Even though he seems like he's out of control half the time, he is averaging only 1.5 turnovers per game, despite playing 27 minutes a night and often receiving primary ball-handling duties.
No, the problem isn't the ball handling or getting into the lane. The problem for Dion is what he actually does once he gets there, especially since his shot has not been falling as of late.
Coach Billy Donovan had a particularly insightful and nuanced explanation for what he is asking of Dion:
"His focus has gotta change. And what I mean by that is, he's a guy that's a really, really good creator. He can manufacture his own shot. And he's a really good defender, one of our on-ball defenders. The thing I don't want him to do, when I say change his mindset, is go from the fact that he's not shot the ball well and lose sight of the other three or four things he can do to impact our team. I think for him, because he's worked hard, put in the extra time, you want to see results when you do that. But he can't get consumed with that and lose focus on the other things that he can do to help our team. If he's taking good shots and getting into the paint and the ball's not going in the basket, he can't get consumed with that."
If you can consistently get into the lane, you're doing something right. What Waiters needs is a sharper perspective on the options he has at his disposal once he has collapsed the defense. Not coincidentally, this is the exact same problem that Russell Westbrook had for years. He had no trouble getting into the paint, but eventually defenses figured out that if they let him get there, he might not know what the best decision was once he arrived. Westbrook has worked tirelessly as a floor general to learn to track all of his teammates, who are now outlet options instead of bystanders. Every one of them has to be prepared to catch a pass from Westbrook when he drives to the rim.
Likewise, we saw some hints of that awareness from Waiters last night. Granted these are only two plays in the morass, but the more aware he becomes of his teammates and builds better chemistry with them, the easier the plays become.
In this first clip, look at the strange Jupiter-like gravity Waiters has. He has pulled the entire Grizzlies defense in. To him! Once he gets past his man, he knows that Payne is sitting in the wing in a good passing angle to receive the pass.
In this second clip, what I like most is that after Payne distributes the ball to Waiters on the wing, the two players stay on the same page as Waiters drives baseline. Payne continues to shift to the left, because he knows that the pass may be coming soon and he needs to give Dion a passing lane to feed the ball through.
At the very last moment, with Waiters stuck underneath the rim, the pair make their final adjustments which really makes the play. Waiters fakes a pass between two defenders, takes one more step, and works himself free to make the pass. Meanwhile, Payne makes one last quick step to the left, making the pass as easy for Dion as possible.
What these two clips show is that playmaking is a two-way street. The ball handler is responsible for a lot, but he can only do so much if his teammates aren't making themselves available once the defense collapses. In both clips, Payne makes subtle adjustments to make Dion's job easier, and when that happens, Waiters can easily see the opportunity for the assist.
Yes, they are only two plays. But they are still two positive plays that will help the Thunder bench improve as the season progresses.