Lakers/Thunder Preview: When The Thunder Have The Ball

Darius Soriano —  April 16, 2010

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For some time the mantra for this site has been that the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.  So we start our preview of the Lakers first round series against the Thunder with how to slow down OKC’s offense.  This will be a task that will be easier said than done.  The Thunder, though ranked only 12th in points per possession over the course of the regular season, do have one of the best offensive players in the league in Kevin Durant, a fantastic young point guard in Russ Westbrook, and other versatile players that can put the ball in the basket.  So, in order to slow down the Thunder, the Lakers must understand OKC’s plan of attack and then systematically start to take those things away to limit those plays’ effectiveness or make them go to other options entirely.

Obviously, when a team has the league’s leading scorer on their roster, their offensive attack starts with that player.  So, keying in on Kevin Durant will be the first priority for the Lakers D.  In the four games that the Lakers played against the Thunder, they actually did an okay job against him.  In three of the four contests they held him below 50% shooting and kept him below his season scoring average.   But we must also understand that three of those four contests were early in the season – he is a better player now than he was before the calendar changed over to 2010.  And even though Durant hasn’t had that singular spectacular game against the Lakers, he still got his numbers.  That is likely to continue this series.  I’ll let Zephid explain:

We all know that Kevin Durant is going to get his; he’s going to get 25+ points.  As good as Ron Artest has been, Durant is getting to that Kobe-Lebron-Wade territory of unstoppable, only containable.  But, it all depends on how many shots he takes to get them.  Similar to Kobe, if we can hold Durant to a 1-1 shot-to-point ratio, we’ll have a very good chance of bouncing the Thunder quickly.  But to do that, we have to keep Durant off the free throw line.  He’s averaging 10 free throws a game, and shoots them at almost 90%, so Ron Artest has to stay down and just give up the jumpers.  At this point, you’d almost rather Durant take semi-open jumpers than send him to the free throw line, he’s so good.

We all know that Phil has already started to combat Durant’s ability to get to the foul line by working the media and calling out the referees.  But how are the Lakers going to try to make the rest of KD’s game less effective?  They need to start by understanding what the Thunder do to get KD the ball and where he’s most effective on the court.

The Thunder’s main goal is to get Durant the ball in three different places.  First is on the extended wing on either side of the court.  To do this, the Thunder often run a simple down screen action with their Center.  Durant starts on the low block, the ball is brought up on that same side of the court, and then the big man sets a down screen to get Durant an easy catch around the three point line.  The second place that Durant loves to catch the ball is on the baseline/mid post in the 12 to 16 foot range.  The Thunder try to accomplish this by running a variation of the setup described above.  But instead of starting at the low block, Durant starts up high at the extended wing, goes to the low block like he’s going to pop back out to the wing (using the down screen described above), but instead of popping back out to the wing he continues to run the baseline and gets a screen at the weak side low block so he can circle to the opposite short corner.  He then receives a pass as the ball rotates back to his side.  The third way that Durant gets the ball in his hands is by running the screen and roll when he’s the screener.  In this arrangement, Durant just sets up at the elbow and comes up to Westbrook (or Maynor) and sets a simple screen where he can run a pick and pop to free him up.  Once the guard comes off the screen, he quickly looks to give the ball up to KD where he is in a position to attack.

The Lakers must understand that due to Durant’s unlimited range, the Thunder don’t really care where Durant catches the ball because he is a threat to score from anywhere.  So, the point of their sets is to just get the ball in his hands and let him go to work.  They don’t run anything complex to accomplish this and essentially run simplistic actions just so he can get a step on his defender to create a passing lane/angle.  And then once he has the ball he’s looking to create a shot for himself (Durant has an assist rate of 9.09 – the league average for SF’s is 12.87).  Understand as well that despite the simplicity of these plays, these are sets that produce a large number of KD’s shot attempts (746 of 1,668 of his FGA’s come off isolations and screens just like these).  So, defending these types of actions (especially in isolation) will be quite important for the Lakers.  Luckily for the Lakers, they employ Ron Artest, a player that just happens to be one of the best on ball defenders in the league.  And against Durant, Artest will need to use all his tricks and craftiness to keep the young star off balance.  Sometimes that will mean allowing the catch and then crowding Durant.  Other times it will mean furious ball denials.  But on every possession, it will mean that Artest must work hard (not a problem for Ron) and body up the willowy Durant in an effort to wear him down.  If there’s one thing that I’ve been most impressed with when it comes to KD it’s that he can make the game look so easy; that at times it seems that he’s hardly working but yet having so much success.  But, Artest is the exact type of defender to counter act that due to his strength and ability to make offensive players work to make the catch, to establish position, and to get shots off.  This is the aspect of Artest’s defense that I’m most interested in when he matches up with KD because over the course of the series, I think it will take it’s toll on him.

But, Durant is not the only key player to slow down.  Obviously when it comes to evaluating the Lakers defense, it’s how this team deals with point guards that is the glaring weakness.  And with Russell Westbrook, the Thunder will pose a challenge at  this position.  Again, I’ll let Zephid share his thoughts on what this match up means for this series:

It’s obvious that the key to the Lakers beating OKC is Russell Westbrook.  During the three times when the Lakers beat the Thunder, Westbrook went 9-21, 5-16, and 5-12.  When they won, Westbrook went 10-13.  So while Westbrook hasn’t played particularly well against the Lakers this season, except during the blowout a couple weeks ago, we’re going to get blown out if we don’t hold him down.

Controlling Westbrook will indeed be a major factor in the Lakers success in this series.  So how should the Lakers approach him?  I asked that question to Kurt and he gave a succinct answer but one that is completely accurate:

Westbrook is a slasher on offense and does not have a good outside shot. Go under picks, dare him to shoot the jumper and the three. Make him beat you from the outside.  (Kurt also explained that this applies to Sefalosha as well.)

Or, as I like to call it, give him the Rajon Rondo treatment.  Dare him to take the jumper.  Build a wall in transition and help off of non scorers (like Thabo) and turn him into a player that must consistently score from 18 feet and out.  Yes, this will be easier said than done as Russell is a player that has excellent quickness and rare athleticism for a point guard.  But, he’s also never faced a playoff defense before and especially one where the coaches have had weeks to look at his game and break down his tendencies.

One other aspect to understand about the OKC offense is something that I mentioned earlier – simplicity.  The Thunder do not run complex sets.  When you have devastating one on one players like Durant and Westbrook, then surround them with Jeff Green (an all around talent that can shoot the three, drive and finish, or post up), Nenad Kristc (a good big man with an okay post game and a good enough mid-range jumper), and James Harden (smooth guard with a very good jumper and underrated play making skill), the point isn’t to run a bunch of complicated actions, but rather to get the ball into the hands of their best creators and let them do their thing.  But, this season, this has led to a couple of issues.  First is the fact that the Thunder are a bit of a turnover prone team (they have the 7th highest turnover rate in the league).  Some of that is because of the predictability of their sets, but it’s also because Westbrook is not the most natural point guard and that can often lead to forced passes or misreads.  Second is the fact that the Thunder aren’t the best executing team in crunch time and have had trouble this season closing out the tightly contested games.  The Thunder are 7-11 in games that are decided by three points or less and are 1-4 in overtime games.  As Kurt told me:

When games tighten up and defenses get tougher at the end of games, the Thunder tend to tighten up as well. Durant is still Durant, but he gets less help and their offense becomes more about isolation, and with that they often become stagnant and they go through dry spells. It’s a learning thing, they won’t do that in a couple of years.

However, Kwame A. thinks that this may be more than just an execution issue, it may be a personnel one:

I think that the Coach of the Year Scott Brooks has actually made a mistake in his lineups to close out games.  Or actually, has a catch 22.  For the Thunder to be a diverse enough offense to be effective in tight game situations I think they need James Harden on the court.  He, along with wildcard Jeff Green, are the only shooters outside of Durant.  Problem is, Thabo is Scott’s guy for shutting down opposing perimeter players, so Thabo is in the game.  This has led them into either having to stick with Thabo-who is a liability to say the least on O, or try to shuffle Harden and Thabo back and forth, and that hasn’t worked out.

So here we are.  The Thunder have the horses, but do they have the schemes to compete against a dialed in Lakers defense?  Can Durant shake free from the grasp of Artest often enough to generate the type of scoring outbursts that his team will likely need to create and hold a lead?  Will Westbrook be able to knock down enough jumpers so that the defense has to play him honestly where driving lanes are open and available?  Will Green be assertive enough?  Will Thabo make enough shots to not be a liability that can be doubled off of?  Can the Thunder execute in the closing minutes of a close game?  Remember, while the Lakers defense has slipped some lately, they are still a top 5 defensive team and were ranked either #1 or #2 in defensive efficiency for several months this season.  If the Thunder are to win, they’ll need the answers to most of the above questions to be yes.  Meanwhile, the Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.  Which side will win out?  Starting on Sunday, we’ll see.

Tomorrow – when the Lakers have the ball.

Darius Soriano

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