I started going back and looking at plays with the intention of being extraordinarily negative and pointing out the flaws that have led to this dismal start for the Thunder. However, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m in too good of a mood for all that. Instead, we are going to drill into how the Thunder runs the two-man game.
OKC actually runs a lot of actions off the standard pick-and-roll setup and I find it fascinating to look at the nuance that goes into positioning and off-ball movement. To start, below is the most standard and understood PnR action you can have. Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams are experts at running this. Russ has the ability to blow off the entire play and opt for a line drive to the rim, which forces the defense on its heels throughout the entire action. Meanwhile, Adams knows all of the nuances in Russ’ actions and always moves in step.
On this particular play you can clearly see that DeMarcus Cousins is completely hung out to dry on the drive by Westbrook. He has to commit to stopping the drive and hope for help defense on the rolling Adams. Unfortunately for DeMarcus, the Thunder inverted Andre Roberson and Carmelo Anthony’s offensive positions. This flip pulled Anthony Davis out to the left corner three-point line and has Rajon Rondo under the rim to provide help defense. This left an easy dunk for Adams.
Here’s another example:
This is a very minor variation on the first example we looked at. Instead of attacking head-on with a spread floor, the Thunder overloaded the left side and Westbrook initiated the PnR at the right elbow. Cousins is again forced to hope for help defense as Russ comes around the pick from Adams. And again, there is no help defense to be found.
One other aspect to note is that typically, the on ball defender (Rondo) should be able to help out, but Adams wipes him out of the play and gives an extra shove at the end of the screen to ensure there would be no recovery in time. It’s a slick move that provides the extra room and time needed for a clean easy shot at the rim.
This play is setup from repeated PnRs putting pressure on the defense. Russ sets up at the top of the three-point line with shooters in each corner and Adams starts to move to the top of the arc. Everyone expects the standard pick and roll, but this time Adams drops back and hangs up at the free throw line. As he does this Russ begins his drive and Paul George cuts from the baseline out to the right wing three-point line. George’s man is caught in place, Russ has beaten Rondo on the drive and Steve has Anthony Davis completely tied up.
Davis probably needs to abandon ship and switch out to George, but that’s a tough call and needs to be made very quickly to be effective. The pass hits George right as he is turning at the three-point line and he’s able to go directly into his shot.
In the play below, you see the Pelicans opted on icing (or blitzing — everyone has their own preference) the pick and rolls. This means the screener’s defender is going to show hard on the ball handler to try and deter a drive and hope for a recovery by the on-ball defender or for help defense. Boston instead opts to hang back, hoping they can clog the play up.
Al Horford stays far enough back that Russ won’t be able to get around him. Russ instead tosses up a nifty lob that Adams tips in. Playing the soft retreating PnR defense is a viable option, but Russ and Adams have such good chemistry and are both so athletic it doesn’t deter too much.
Here is another example of the soft PnR defense and another way Russ and Steve have a habit of attacking it:
This play is eerily similar to a running back following a fullback through a hole. Aaron Baynes never even comes out with Adams, so Russ charges straight at him — forcing a retreat even further into the paint.
Adams loops back behind Russ and takes the drop off pass for an easy layup. Russ going straight into Baynes’ chest gets him out of position enough to make the play work.
Here is another option for attacking the sagging defense. An off-ball cut behind the screener’s defender will put way too much pressure on the defense. If the cutter can find a lane to rim it will take something outrageously athletic to prevent an easy layup.
Andre makes his cut behind Horford just as Russ gets over the screen and into the paint. If Horford makes a commitment either way he will be giving up an open layup. It’s a classic Catch-22, which is really the entire goal of a PnR. Put one person in a lose-lose situation.
This final play we’re looking at is a fun and potentially deadly variation. When you watch this try and put yourself in the mind of the defense. They’ve had a steady stream of PnRs run on them and their entire strategy is to play soft to try and clog up the action.
The double ball screen where George and Adams come up to Russ in a line force’s Boston’s defense into a weird position. George’s man hangs back off the screen to prevent the drive. That’s their defensive philosophy after all, but George slipping the screen altogether should have called for a different action than what actually happened. Adams backscreens George’s man and Kyrie Irving tries to keep up with Russ — leaving George wide open beyond the arc. It doesn’t take anything more than one or two dribbles left for Russ to ensure George is clear for a shot. Baynes provides literally zero help throughout the play.
Hopefully, this breakdown will give you a few things to watch for when Russ and Steve line up for a PnR the next game you watch. The nuances and intricacies of the defense and the way the other three players set up on offense inform the actions and movements that Adams and Russ will make. They really do have outstanding chemistry together, and it’s fun to watch — which is what I was looking for heading into Thanksgiving.