How The Thunder Took Out The Bulls

Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has long been ridiculed for his late game play-calling on offense. Though the Thunder were often still able to score at a rate well above league average in close and late situations, their baskets mostly came via isolation plays for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or (far less often) James Harden, or via the drive-and-kick. They weren’t exactly drawing up creative plays to get easy looks for their best players.

Late last season, Brooks found a late game play that consistently created open looks for Durant, and he went back to it again and again throughout Oklahoma City’s run to the NBA Finals. Last night against the Chicago Bulls, Brooks broke out his favorite play again, only he modified to fit his new personnel.

Rather than having Westbrook just pass the ball off to new shooting guard Kevin Martin as he came up the floor, Brooks had the team start out in a set that indicates they’re trying to run floppy (about halfway down when he starts talking about Ray Allen), with Westbrook handling the ball at the top of the key, Martin and Serge Ibaka stacked on the left block, and Durant and Thabo Sefalosha stacked on the right block. It’s likely that – knowing Martin’s prowess as a scorer coming off screens – Brooks added this extra wrinkle into the play to create a just little bit more space for Durant.

After that initial change, the play unfolded just as it did last season. Westbrook set a pin-down screen for Durant, who popped up around the elbow for a jump shot. (It should be noted that Durant has multiple options here depending on how the opposition defends the play: he could curl around the screen into the middle of the lane and head towards the rim, flare out to the corner, or pop up near the elbow, all based on how the defense decides to cover it.)

In the last 6:45 of the game last night, the Thunder had 16 possessions. They were fouled immediately on two, and two were transition plays. Out of the other 12 possessions, the Thunder ran this pin-down play for Durant five times. Durant went 3-for-4 with a turnover (an offensive foul on Durant fighting for position) on those plays, scoring 6 points. That’s 1.2 points per possession (PPP), a mark that would lead the league in just about every season of its existence if they scored at that rate all game every game.

Even on a play where the initial pin-down action was covered, Westbrook and Durant were able to improvise a post-up out of it and get Durant a good look at the basket. Here, Luol Deng jumps Durant’s route, so Westbrook pops back out to the elbow extended, receives the pass, and simply enters the ball to Durant in the post and lets him go to work.

And then, even when the Bulls knew exactly what play was coming, Durant was just too good. He curled around the screen, caught near the middle of the lane, and ripped off a Dirk-esque fade-away.

When the Thunder weren’t busy running their pet play from last season down the stretch, they were running something that holds even more exciting possibilities for the future: a Westbrook-Durant high pick-and-roll. As we well know, the pick-and-roll works so well because the space created by the pick forces the screener’s defender into a difficult choice. Does he hedge on the ball-handler and try to cut off dribble penetration, or does he stay attached to his man and take away the dive to the rim or the open perimeter jumper?

When the Thunder put Westbrook in this action with Durant as opposed to Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison, the defense is essentially in a catch-22. If they stay attached to Durant, they’re freeing space for Westbrook to get to the rim or take that elbow pull-up jumper he likes so much. If they hedge hard on Westbrook, they’re leaving Durant open for a second or more – far too long to leave Durant open.

Normally an extremely sound defensive team, the Bulls didn’t exactly handle the Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll very well. Durant’s defender, Luol Deng, went with the “hedge hard sideways and try to recover” strategy that you often see from slower big men and other players who lack  lateral mobility. Needless to say, that did not deter Westbrook from entering the lane.

Whether his defender, Kirk Hinrich, went over the screen (as above) or under the screen (as below), Westbrook found his way.

On one occasion, Deng hedged out too far, allowing Westbrook to turn the corner and get to the lane. Durant rolled to the hoop right behind the play, and Deng was out of position, allowing Westbrook to slide a pass through the lane to KD for an easy layup.

All told, the Thunder ran this play on seven of their 16 possessions in the last 6:45, resulting in three baskets. They had two turnovers – a Durant offensive foul for an illegal screen and Westbrook/Ibaka combining to fumble the ball out of bounds. On the other two plays, Westbrook missed an open elbow jumper and Durant missed an open 3-pointer. So the results were mixed – 6 points on 7 possessions leaves them with about 0.86 PPP, a decent but not great average for pick-and-roll plays – but the process was good, as were the looks the Thunder got out of it.

What the Thunder did down the stretch was very simple. They ran two plays the majority of the time, with the primary action essentially involving only their star players. They produced 12 points on those 12 half-court possessions, an extremely good mark that would come close to leading the league (the New York Knicks are currently leading the NBA with 1.03 PPP in the half-court). Scott Brooks got his best players in good positions to score, and that’s as much as you can ask for.

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