It’s become part of the Thunder game routine. Just like you can be sure Russell Westbrook will smack his hands together after a no-call at least once, just like you can know Kevin Durant will fall down a time or two in a way that scares you to death and just like you can be certain Nick Collison will take a charge, you can also be sure James Harden and Collison will hook up on a backdoor cut and pass.
Unofficially, I think they have a streak of 60 games on this. I can’t think of a night it didn’t happen honestly. It’s become a go-to set for the second unit and one with a success rate of somewhere around 99 percent.
So naturally, let’s study it in a little greater detail. In the video I put one backdoor play from the Charlotte game Friday and one from Sunday night’s game against Toronto.
The first couple times I saw the backdoor play, I always kind of assumed it was just a smart two-man play from Collison and Harden. I didn’t really see it as a called set, but more of two smart players improvising a good play. Harden is probably the best cutter on the team and he has tremendous hands, so the play kind of comes natural. I don’t know why it always seems to come with Collison, but he is a very good passer and because he has the threat of being capable of that 18-20 foot jumper, it draws the defense to him and takes focus away.
The play starts with Collison slipping off after kind of faking a screen. Nothing special about that, but obviously the Thunder wants the ball in Collison’s hands at the top of the key with some space.
Again, the space Collison has is pretty important, but the key to the play is the setup. Without that, this thing never works. Harden’s man has committed slightly to helping on Collison, at least just in eying him. Harden sets up his man by faking either a hard move to get a hand-off from Collison or just a pass. Without Harden’s 3-point threat, his defender isn’t as concerned about where he’s going. So Harden stutters toward Collison and that’s all he needs. Once his man moves slightly toward stopping the hand-off, it’s all over.
The way the play is designed, I think it’s an option between Collison and Harden. If Harden feels his man commit, he’ll backcut. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll come up for a hand-off. Again, that’s a big reason the play is so tough to stop. Because Harden can hit the 3 off the hand-off, defenders have to key on both.
Tyrus Thomas actually did a pretty good job of sniffing the play out and forced Harden to pump a couple times before scoring. But you can see how Harden barely needs any space to get it done. It’s kind of like a wide receiver putting his man on his hip. Once that happens, all it takes is a good throw from the quarterback and there’s no stopping it. And in this case, Nick Collison is basically the Peyton Manning of backdoor passing.
The way the Thunder ran it Sunday against the Raptors was slightly different with Collison not faking his on-ball screen quite as well. His man didn’t commit, so Collison never had extra space.
But what you can see is that the floor spacing is terrific. Just look at that huge hole there in the paint. Collison sells the hand-off even more by taking a dribble and a step toward Harden and right at that moment, Harden cuts reverses and cuts hard to the baseline.
The biggest reason I love this play so much is the timing and chemistry it requires to execute. Harden has to make eye contact with Collison and at the same time, they have to sync up to make it work. It’s a trust play. Collison is trusting Harden not to fake a cut and step back out and Harden trusts Collison to deliver the ball on time.
Again, to use the quarterback analogy, Collison has to sort of throw Harden open. He has to lead him to the basket, picking a spot out and dropping the ball right there for Harden to scoop up and go to the rim with.
Harden’s ability to cut along the baseline has become such a weapon for the Thunder and the reason he’s so good is because he’s always under control, times it well and has terrific hands.
This is the type of play that as long as Harden and Collison set it up properly and get on time together, you really can’t stop it. The best you can hope for is for Harden’s man to guess right and play him to the backdoor more than hedging on the dribble hand-off. Or hope your big man rotates perfectly on time to cut Harden off at the rim. That’s about it.