Russell Westbrook was in trouble and time was running out.
Faced again with the possibility of fulfilling two of three triple-double categories with the increasing likelihood of sitting the entire fourth quarter, the Thunder’s point guard needed a bucket.
So the Thunder called on a Westbrook staple, a play they run to get him a clean 3-point look with regularity. It’s simple: Kendrick Perkins sets a soul-crushing screen on Westbrook’s man as he flares out to the 3-point line.
The Thunder run this play probably at least once a game, sometimes more. They’ve even gone to it in crucial situations, like against the Trail Blazers a few weeks ago down two late in the fourth quarter (Perk got called for a moving screen on it, and Westbrook missed anyway). But it’s a set OKC likes a lot because it essentially guarantees a fairly open look for an adequate 3-point shooter.
Here’s the setup:
Simple spacing with the appearance of a baseline pin screen for Durant by Perk, or a high screen-and-roll with Ibaka and Westbrook.
Perk never screens for Durant, and KD moves into the paint and kind of half feigns a pick for Ibaka. The defender trailing KD is thinking a screen on him is coming from Ibaka, so he’s trying to trail closely on Durant’s hip. With him properly behind him, Durant moves to the top of the key ready to catch Westbrook’s pass, which serves as the trigger to the action.
Just want to note this: Look at the space on the left side of the floor. Vital to the success of the play. Also: Notice how Ibaka really never leaves the paint. It’s part of the spacing, but he was in the lane for like six seconds.
After KD catches, the play is officially in motion. Like I said, that catch is the key trigger to initiating the action, because this set is all about timing. Perk has to come hit Westbrook’s man right on time, Westbrook has to flare right on time and Durant has to deliver right on time. Any one of those things gets messed up, and you’re left with a moving screen like Perk had in Portland, or a failed pass, or an unopen Westbrook.
Other than scouting this play before, the thing that makes it hard to defend is opposing defenses are probably expecting Perk to come set an on-ball for KD. Instead, he’s sizing up Westbrook’s man ready to wipe him out.
Subtle thing that’s key: Ibaka keeps walking through the paint down to the low block. Those three or four steps make sure to pull Tyson Chandler far enough away where he’s not available to help in any way.
And since Perk is such a non-offensive threat, Amare Stoudemire is well behind him, and not in position to help on Westbrook’s catch. It’s like the Thunder are taking advantage of how teams don’t guard Perk anywhere but two feet from the basket. Stoudemire backing off is helpful, because if he’s pushed up, he’s in position to at least contest.
Westbrook drills the shot and the play was a success, but they’ve run it better than this. Shumpert kind of gets a mild contest on Westbrook. Russ needed to get another foot or so to his left to really get an open look.
Also, be sure to note how KD is already headed back to the defensive end as soon as Westbrook goes into his shooting motion. Very important to the play.
The Thunder always run the set to that side of the floor, too. I don’t know if that’s because Westbrook’s more comfortable shooting off the catch going that direction or if it’s for something else, but the play is always on the left side of the court.
I bet the team has rehearsed this play so many times that it’s basically muscle memory at this point. Westbrook is an average to below average catch-and-shoot player (23.5 percent on spot-ups from 3, per Synergy), but better in that regard than off the dribble from 3.
Westbrook’s taken the most 3s from that side of the court — probably in part because of this play — and while he’s hitting just 26.2 percent from the left side, my instinct says he’s hitting a decent percentage when they come from this play. (Synergy says Westbrook is just 3-14 off screens from 3 this season, but I feel like he’s made more than three 3s on this play this season.)
Something else kind of interesting about the play: I’ve only ever seen the Thunder run it with Perk on the floor. Nick Collison, who is an equal screener, has never been involved in setting the pick for Westbrook. Nor Steven Adams, a quality screener. No idea what the explanation here could be, but the Thunder like it only when Perk is doing the screening.
Scott Brooks has been criticized a lot for being a system-less coach and more a man of individualized sets. The thing about OKC’s offense is that it’s far from intricate, but the room for players to express themselves is sometimes what makes it explode. And when those high screen-and-roll sets or isolation plays are bogging down, Brooks calls out for something like this.