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OKC's defense by Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson are eroding the Spurs offense

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We go to the film to see how our shooting guards are using persistence to wear out the San Antonio players, as well as Roberson's potential offensive uses.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I'm really excited about writing this article. I've avoided spending too much time talking about my guy Andre Roberson and my bandwagon/adopted guy Dion Waiters (I finally washed up onto Waiters' Island) because there have been so many defensive concepts worth looking at (Adams and Kanter beasting, defensive adjustments, Westbrook taking a game off). However, I think it's time to give our shooting guards some love for the effort they are putting in on the defensive end. So here we go.

We'll also discuss Roberson and the offensive end, but that will be saved for the end. R.K. Anthony suggested looking at potential solutions for him being ignored, so I'll try to see what has worked in the past. But first, to the defense.

Defending at the Point of Attack

A lot is made in basketball about the back line of defense. Big men who are rim-protectors and/or defensive anchors can completely change the dynamic of the entire defense. If you look at defensive statistics (Defensive Real Plus/Minus, etc.) you typically will find the top players are centers and power forwards. This is because so much of efficient offense requires operating in the paint. If you can't break down the defense with the drive, it's much harder to get both open layups and 3-point shots.

As a result, it's rare for guards and wings to get much defensive love. Kawhi Leonard won back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards as a wing, but he is the exception, not the norm. However, with the defensive scheme Billy Donovan implemented with the Thunder, aggressive defense from the guards is imperative. If they are behind the play, the bigs get forced into impossible situations, like 2 on 1 at the rim, or recovering 15 feet to contest a jump-shot.

In this series, Dion and Andre have both stepped up in a big way on the defensive end. They have been consistently disruptive primarily on two guys: Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. Perhaps you are thinking that it's strange to commend defense guarding Leonard when Kawhi is averaging 23 points on 50% shooting.

"In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance." - Unknown (though often attributed to Buddha)

Something that is important to remember about defense is that individual results often don't matter. Yes, I know that sounds absurd. But defense is a cumulative game. Sometimes the shots go in, but if you continually force the offensive player off their spot and into uncomfortable zones or shots, eventually the defense comes out on top.

Kawhi is shooting in the mid-50% range for the first 3 quarters of the games this series. In the 4th quarter, his shooting drops to 35%. Additionally, he shoots only 16.7% from 3 in the 4th quarter. Danny Green mentioned in the post-game presser that Kawhi had gotten tired in the 4th quarter of Game 4, a quarter in which he missed back to back, wide open 3s.

Also, let's look back to a quote from Roberson following game 2:

A lot of Spurs fans in particular scoffed at the idea that Roberson was winning the matchup against Leonard. However, if you watch the Thunder guards play the long game against Kawhi, you can see the cumulative effect of their defense.

So in the clips I have below, remember that sometimes the shot goes in, but the defense still wins. Because the goal of the defense is to win the game, not to win single possessions. And because we are focusing on cumulative impact (and since Waiters spent a lot of time off-ball in Game 5 due to foul trouble), I've used clips from earlier games as well.

To the tape!

Roberson does a great job sealing Kawhi to the baseline here. The advantage of angling him like this is three-fold.

  • First, Kawhi is limited in directions he can go. Roberson knows exactly what angle Kawhi has to fade at on this shot, so it is easier to contest without fouling.
  • Second, Roberson has help. Because Green is in the corner here, the spacing for San Antonio falls apart. Durant can get his long arms in to disrupt, and Serge can prevent Kawhi from going straight up.
  • Third, Kawhi can't use the backboard. When players are shooting from an angle on the move like this, they often like to let the moment carry the shot off glass. However, Roberson has forced Kawhi so far out that he is almost behind the plane of the backboard, making this shot much tighter.

This is a case of the result of a basket not being the primary concern. Dion gets posted up, and Kawhi tries to power him into layup range. Despite Kawhi's best effort, Dion actually forces him further from the rim, and Kawhi hits a tough fadeaway. This is really tiring on the legs though, so these hard-fought points are acceptable in the grand scheme of a functioning defense.

This is excellent late-shot-clock defense from Waiters. He forces Kawhi to the FT line where he absorbs the contact. They teach that you should, as a defender, control your man from your core. If you watch, right when Kawhi hits the FT line, Waiters plants his abdominal region and soaks up all of Kawhi's momentum. He taps the ball out, disrupting Kawhi's rhythm, and the result is a missed, rushed, off-balance floater.

Watch how early Roberson does his work in this play. His first goal is to make Kawhi catch the ball moving away from the basket, and he does. His second goal is to get Kawhi off balance with pressure. Watch Kawhi lean back on that right foot. At that point, Roberson can increase his pressure because he has eliminated almost every option besides the pass. He uses length to disrupt the pass, and Westbrook makes the read and gets the steal.

This is absolutely menacing defense from Dion. He again absorbs contact with his waist, forcing Manu to attempt to change directions. A sloppy dribble sort of snowballs under relentless pressure and Dion reaches in and picks his pocket.

This is an effort play, plain and simple. Roberson shows on Kawhi's right side, forcing the pass to the baseline. Kawhi is trying to maintain the position he fought for, and perhaps doesn't extend enough. Roberson beats him to the pass and tips it in to Adams.

I included this clip to demonstrate how frustrating it can be to be hounded by a defender. Watch the entire play unfold. Roberson presses full court before stopping Kawhi at the 3pt arc. They run Roberson through several screen attempts off-ball to try and get Kawhi a solid post-up. However, look where Kawhi is when he gets the ball: he is almost at the 3pt line.

Doing work early makes the rest of the possession so much easier. Kawhi is only given 5 seconds to back down the defender, and he has to get at least 10 feet before it's a reasonable shot. He ends up hooking Roberson and getting called for an offensive foul here.

Something that Roberson usually does a little bit differently than Dion is contest with length. Dion would use his frame to absorb more of the contact here, but Roberson isn't built as solidly. However, Roberson has great length, and is able to get up and almost block the shot here with his off hand. I don't know if you realize how impressive this contest is, but Roberson is moving backwards into this jump, and he is defending a player with equally long arms. Really impressive stuff.

Again, several things we see here are common in this series. Kawhi isn't able to catch the ball in his spot. He gets the ball with 7 seconds left, and he is posted up at the 3pt line. Dion absorbs the initial contact, bites a little bit on the fake, but is able to avoid fouling, and Kawhi is forced into an off-balance floater (that is contested by Kanter).

Game 5

This play is incredibly impressive. Roberson does a great job of stopping Manu's initial drive. As Manu goes for the quick shot, Roberson jumps up (off his back foot) and blocks the shot. Manu recovers and tries to shoot a three off of a screen, but Roberson comes from behind and disrupts the shot, forcing a pass to Anderson.

This is an incredible shot by Kawhi over great defense from both Roberson and Adams. I want you to watch Roberson's hands here. Notice that he always keeps the ball-side arm up to contest, and he slides the off-ball arm right into Kawhi's hip pocket. When Kawhi wants to change directions, he has two choices: a behind the back dribble (which shifts his momentum backward) or the spin move he uses. While the spin move works here, if Serge were faster, it is extremely easy for the help defender to converge and strip the ball, as the dribbler cannot see where he is at.

Those subtle things can completely change the offensive player's ability to get space. Because of hand location, Kawhi is forced into a tougher, out-of-rhythm motion here.

Sometimes the Spurs look a lot like the Thunder on offense. Because Roberson is chasing Kawhi early and tight here, the offense is initiated from about 35 feet out. When the screen is set 8 feet behind the 3pt line, Serge has no reason to worry about his man. Durant doesn't have to help off, and Kawhi has no choice but to shoot over Roberson's contest. Again, Roberson gets very close to tipping this shot.

I included this to show that even elite defense gets beaten sometimes. Roberson forces Kawhi to the baseline, strips the ball, and Kawhi throws up an awkward, off-balance shot. It goes in, but this is phenomenal defense.

This play is important for one reason. In the flow of the game, not much changed. San Antonio kept the ball. However, this is a pretty common bailout pass made when the paint gets too packed to finish in.That baseline kick-out to the corner is a last resort for driving guards. However, it's also an easy place to get steals, and so the passer has to be careful here. Roberson getting a hand on this early probably sticks in Parker's mind. Sometimes those little things become shadows of doubt that cause a crucial hesitation.

This last effort by San Antonio showcases great defense by both Dion and Roberson. On these last second plays, the first thing to prevent is allowing any shooter to catch and shoot in rhythm. By forcing the action away from the basket, Kawhi isn't going to get a clean look. Roberson contests without fouling. Dion, rather than rushing in on the rebound, stays with Green. This prevents Green from being able to dribble in, and Dion can contest the long 3-point shot. The most important thing, of course, was that they contested without fouling to prevent any sort of miracle 4-point play possibility.

So there it is in abridged form. I'm sure you have all been noticing the effort these guys have been putting in, but I thought it was worth highlighting once again.

Roberson's Offense

It's now time to address the elephant in the room. San Antonio has been completely ignoring Roberson on the offensive end. In fact, rather than have Kawhi, the Defensive Player of the Year, defend Westbrook or Durant, he was put on Roberson. This allowed him to effectively double either guy on his side of the court. Roberson got two open 3s out of it, but missed both.

I first want to make a quick note: Roberson shot about 35% from the corners this season. If you remember, though, it was in streaks. He shot over 50% from 3 for about a month, but he tends to go through dry spells. Unfortunately, he is in a Derek Fisher-esque slump right now.

However, that does not mean that he can't be involved in the offense. I've long been a proponent of using him like a forward when Serge is on the floor. Serge is a fantastic outside shooter, but a mediocre inside player. Roberson was one of the best rebounders the PAC-12 had ever seen. It sort of makes sense for them to switch roles, at least occasionally.

How could this play out in action? Let's break down a few clips showcasing Roberson's effectiveness on offense.

This is one of my favorite set plays that OKC runs. It capitalizes on the fact that Roberson's man isn't guarding closely. Serge slips out to the corner, Roberson screens his defender, and the only help defender has two feet in the paint. We've run this all season, and I've seen it set up a lot more than it has been used. With the way Serge is hitting 3's, I'd like to see us use this more often.

Roberson can be effective as a screen man, especially when used with the right personnel. People don't want to help off of a big man to pick him up, so double teaming Russ will always give Roberson the lane. It's important that he be able to see passes, though, in case someone contests. While we obviously can't screen with him every possession, on ball screens would be a nice addition to his function on that end.

This play functions similarly, except he doesn't actually slip the screen. Often, when we think of him cutting to the basket, we only think from the corner, but we could have him cut from the wing as well.

This play shows how beautiful the movement can be even with Roberson on the floor. Notice how his cross-cut of Durant gives KD some space to make the catch. Roberson man is forced to switch sides of the floor because of the contact that is made. The ball swings to him in the corner, but rather than shoot, he drives. I wish he had done more of that so it wasn't so foreign now, because it would be a nice alternative to shooting.

Offensive rebounding is the last way Roberson can be effective on offense. He is being guarded by guys much smaller and less athletic than he. I'm sure he could pull down several more per game if it were part of his role. But that brings us to the real problem.

With Russ and KD driving so often, Roberson is responsible for being the first man back on defense. This is part of why he cuts less often: if it isn't a sure dunk, he can't risk being caught in the scrum. This would be fine if he was hitting outside shots because he can get back quickly from the perimeter. But if he were to get caught inside, Kawhi has shown his ability to get ahead of the pack for easy points.

So there it is! We now lead the series 3-2, and just have to win 1 of 2 to get the series. Let's close them out at home on Thursday!