Killer Lineup: OKC's keep-the-faith starters

Miami Heat

Russell Westbrook | Thabo Sefolosha | Kevin Durant | Serge Ibaka | Kendrick Perkins

Minutes Played: 1,024

Offensive Rating: 110.1 points per 100 possessions

Defensive Rating: 96.6 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

At some point this weekend, Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins will play their 2,000th minute together as a single unit (since the February 2011 trade that brought Perkins to OKC). For all the success this lineup has enjoyed, it still receives a fair amount of grief for its underperformance on the offensive end. Much of that criticism is residual. This was one of the Thunder’s weaker offensive groups in 2011, and again last season.

Whether it’s Durant’s ever-expanding game, Westbrook’s maturation as a floor general, Ibaka’s proficiency as a midrange shooter or Sefolosha’s 62.2 percent true shooting percentage, the Thunder’s starters are now an offensive juggernaut. So as much as we regard Perkins as offensive blockage, or Sefolosha as a liability, this thing works. It’s not perfect, but it’s an undeniably effective offensive group.

This is some very fine machinery, but its inner workings aren’t terribly complicated. The primary reason it hums, of course, is Durant, who has graduated from explosive scorer to offensive fulcrum. He’s making decisions that never would’ve occurred to him three seasons ago.

The old favorites are on display nightly. When Durant is faced up, he sweeps those arms to one side while he glides with a long stride and a single dribble to an open space where he elevates for a jumper. Several times per game, Durant will get double-pindowns from Perkins and Ibaka, pop out to the perimeter, catch, turn and shoot. Nothing fancy, but as half-court offense goes, Durant with a half-second to shoot is probably the hardest play to defend in the league.

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The Thunder have also introduced some new wrinkles -- and perfected some old ones -- in large part because Durant’s awareness of his full range of skills has grown substantially. Now when a defender plays on the top side to deny a pass, Durant will signal for a backdoor pass. When Durant is off the ball, he’ll often be presented with a menu of options -- a cross-screen from Sefolosha or, simultaneously, a down screen from Perkins or Ibaka. Durant will read the floor, then choose where he wants to go and how he wants to get there. These days, that process takes Durant barely a nanosecond.

The Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll has grown from experimental to expert this season. Durant’s movement on this play is often something between a pop and a roll -- let’s call it a “proll.” As Westbrook bursts off the screen into the paint, Durant will often float for a second, then dive, so he’s trailing Westbrook. If the pass is there, Westbrook will shuttle a pass behind him to Durant. If a baseline defender has rotated onto Durant, that usually means Westbrook has a clean route to the hoop. Durant will also slip this screen, especially when defenses are in trap mode against Westbrook.

Over the past season and a half, Ibaka has become more than just a high-pick man for Westbrook or Durant. When Ibaka pins for Durant, he’ll simply pop or dive to the basket when Durant catches the pass. With defenses doubling Durant on that action, Ibaka gets a ton of clean looks or open drives, with Durant threading the needle. If Durant is smothered, Westbrook will bypass him and send the ball directly to Ibaka. Both Durant and Westbrook orchestrate more advanced stuff with a lot more confidence than during their early years in the league.

Much of the Thunder’s early offense results from Westbrook pulling up or attacking on the secondary break, or hitting Durant with an outlet pass. Particularly in transition, both Westbrook and Durant are always looking for a body that can precipitate contact. Only James Harden has used more possessions in transition this season than Westbrook, and three-quarters of Westbrook’s possessions on the break result in a drive to the basket or a pull-up jumper.

In the half court, Westbrook is a master of finding seams and holes. Thanks to his accelerated first step, the slightest opening will do. To this end, Ibaka’s ability to extend to the 3-point line has done wonders for this unit’s spacing, and Westbrook is the primary beneficiary. Westbrook isn’t dependent on high screens -- say, relative to a point guard like Chris Paul -- but he’ll use them a fair amount depending on matchup. He’s still a little too eager to take a dribble jumper coming off those picks, but he probably takes more flak than he deserves.

The Thunder will look to attack what they deem as mismatches. Ibaka will get the opportunity to post up when he’s matched against a small-ball 4. Westbrook takes additional liberties against smallish point guards. Durant is almost always a mismatch for his defender, so there’s not much of a variable there.

How it works defensively

Length matters a lot, and it’s a primary reason coach Scott Brooks has stayed faithful to this unit despite calls to go small with Durant at the power forward slot, or to replace Sefolosha with a more potent offensive threat. Since Perkins arrived in Oklahoma City, this five-man combo has remained comfortably below the 100 points per possession mark -- no small feat.

There’s no single way to maximize length as a defensive unit. You can leverage that advantage on the perimeter -- play up on every shooter, trap every ball handler on a high pick-and-roll, and stay home in the corners. The Thunder starters approach it a little differently, with a focus on cordoning off the paint.

It’s a stretch to call what the Thunder do defensively a system, because Brooks encourages flexibility on the defensive end. He’s a firm believer that opposing scorers and facilitators need to encounter a range of defensive looks from multiple defenders. In Brooks’ mind, variety is the best defensive tactic because there isn’t a coverage scheme in the world Tony Parker or Chris Paul can’t crack if you use it enough times.

Brooks empowers his big men to make reads and call out coverages. For instance, Perkins will size up the action, then he might call for a switch, or a trap with Westbrook while yelling for Ibaka to get a full tag on the roll man. When you challenge Brooks about his reliance on Perkins, he’ll explain how important Perkins’ stage direction on defense is to what the Thunder want to accomplish defensively.

Versatility aside, the Thunder’s starters have certain inclinations. They’ll pressure the ball handler on the pick-and-roll. It’s not an aggressive trap, but both defenders will corral the point guard, nudge him away from the paint and toward the sideline. Against the pick-and-roll at the top of the floor, sometimes Perkins or Ibaka will counter with a long show. Ibaka has become extremely confident at containing smaller guys, and he buys plenty of time for teammates who get hung up on a pick.

None of the five starters has any misgivings about being left on an island against an isolation scorer, whether it’s a 6-foot-1 speedster or a bully-baller on the wing. Westbrook and Sefolosha have enormous wingspans and strength, and neither Ibaka nor Perkins backs away from a challenge on the perimeter. On curls, off-ball screens and pindowns, the Thunder switch liberally. They’ll front the post at times and get very aggressive with their ball denial. Westbrook will pick his spots, but it’s not unusual to see him hounding a point guard 30 feet from the basket -- not gambling, just straight-up pressure.

Debate rages over whether Sefolosha is an ace defender, or merely very good. Anecdotes are always dangerous, but if the playoff wins over the Lakers and Spurs are evidence of anything, it’s that Sefolosha can neuter some of the most creative playmakers in the game with his long arms and quick feet. He’s also one of the hardest guards to screen in the game. He’s anticipating, planning for you, and he knows how to evade the screener without losing contact with his assignment.

The Thunder don’t run the defensive scheme Tom Thibodeau fashioned in Boston, but Perkins is still inclined to play that way when he’s defending the basket on the ball side. He’s judicious and somewhat selective about the practice, but he’s definitely still a Celtic at heart, tactically speaking, acting as that “third defender” when the ball works its way to the wing.

Durant’s defense has improved inordinately. That’s not so much the result of better fundamentals as a heightened awareness of what’s materializing behind him. He now understands how to turn a contest of strength (where he might have a disadvantage) into a battle for space. He’s hyperaware of where Ibaka is lurking, looking for any excuse to challenge a shot. Off the ball, Durant has been more eager to crash the paint and has become an expert straddler, maintaining a healthy balance between his wing assignment and the paint, where he might be called upon to collapse on a drive, or pick up a roller.

Ibaka has expanded his defensive game and has become a better decision-maker with regard to space, rotations, when to load up, when to contest and when to resist the urge. That last item is still the most difficult for Ibaka. When you think about the best lanky defensive big men in the league (e.g., Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah), they’ve historically been more concerned about holding down the fort on the weakside rather than swatting shots. With his size and wingspan, Ibaka gives his teammates a lot of leeway as defenders, but only if he times his movements and chooses his spots. So far this season, there’s been an appreciable gain. Now imagine what the Thunder could do defensively if Ibaka gets all the way there.