The San Antonio Spurs were clobbered in the fourth quarter of Games 3 and 5 by one play that the Thunder ran over and over and over. Over on Grantland, Sebastian Pruiti expertly uses video to show how this simple play can have a variety of outcomes -- all deadly effective.
What’s so striking about the play is that the actual mechanics of it can be described in less than 100 words. There are really only two things happening: First, a pin-down screen from Russell Westbrook on Kevin Durant on the right side of the court which gives Durant space to work off the right elbow -- his favorite spot to attack one-on-one. If that action doesn’t immediately result in a bucket, Durant can give the ball back to Harden, who will either be flaring off a backscreen from Kendrick Perkins for an open 3-pointer or, if covered, can catch and immediately initiate a pick-and-roll with Perkins.
Now, as Pruiti’s post points out, there’s a little more to it than just these actions -- after all, the Thunder players can make a variety of reads out of a simple pin-down, and pick-and-rolls are all about reading and reacting.
But on the chalkboard, it's nothing that would escape a good middle school team.
Nearly every NBA team runs some variation of this play. But the Thunder's is almost unstoppable.
Why? Nobody else runs it with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Which gets to the heart of what makes the Thunder the Thunder. For all the talk of togetherness, they don't overwhelm with teamwork. They just have players who execute better.
It starts with Durant, who makes a simple downscreen, a play every NBA team runs dozens of times a game, feel like something concocted for the Saw movies. Typically, it’s not ideal if the defense has to switch a smaller player onto the scorer. But against Durant, as the Spurs found out when he dropped 12 straight points to close game 3, it’s fatal.
That puts all kind of pressure on the guy guarding Russell Westbrook, perhaps the most explosive and powerful point guard in the paint. As much as his defender wants to help stop Durant, you also have to be wary of a lob or quick seal from Westbrook.
All the while, the ball is in the hands of Harden, a sweet shooting 6-5 guard whose ballhandling and vision would be an upgrade at point guard for many teams -- the definition of a triple threat. He has the game and license to exploit any opening that presents itself from the Westbrook-Durant screen.
Stick spare parts Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins in the other two spots on the court and you have offensive magic that works all through the playoffs.
But doesn't coach Scott Brooks deserve some love too?
After all, one of the major storylines heading into this series was that Gregg Popovich would so out-coach Scott Brooks as to nullify any disparity in talent between their two teams.
Should Scott Brooks be applauded for designing this mundane set?
Probably not. But credit him for understanding that the elusiveness of a riddle’s answer hardly depends on the complexity of the question. And praise Brooks and the OKC staff for the impeccable execution -- the ball rarely stuck in Harden or Durant’s hands unnecessarily, and the Thunder stars clearly know how to anticipate and make the correct reads -- and for the sense to run this play until the Spurs came up with a solution.
They never did, perhaps in part because there wasn’t much to solve.