Defending the Westbrook-Durant Slip Screen

Photo Credit: Issac Balidzon

It was Christmas Day and the Miami HEAT beat the Oklahoma City Thunder. Great, now let’s toss that result down the trash chute and move on. December results mean nothing, but December process can tell us plenty.

Two years ago, the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll was a rare treat. Miami was still figuring out how best to arrange its pieces, but Erik Spoelstra quickly identified that the best way to get both Wade and James involved in late-game sets – and all but guarantee a mismatch – was to use one or the other as a screener. Spoelstra didn’t rely on these actions too heavily, but come the last five minutes of a close game, chances were that Spoelstra would make the call.

It started off a little awkwardly. James wasn’t an experienced screener and Wade wasn’t used to how often teams elected to switch defenders. James would usually get a mismatch near the free-throw line, but the action would be stilted, with little coming in the flow of a five-man set. James and Wade were learning on the job, and more often than not their teammates would end up standing around, observing the on-court studies.

Eventually, things were smoothed out. Thanks to a number of sets Spoelstra crafted specifically for this purpose – including the modified version of the Doc Rivers corner-to-high screen play – James became adept at reading Wade’s defender and faking the pick, slipping out into space afforded him by Miami’s growing stable of shooters. Defenses went from having seconds to make one decision to having a few short breathes to make multiple reads.

To say the least, it worked out well for Miami. And the same idea has been working for Oklahoma City, which may have given us a glimpse of the action the HEAT would have to stop should these teams meet again in the NBA Finals.

Before we take a look at these plays, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. The Durant-Westbrook two-man game isn’t a rarity these days. The Thunder have run at least 40 of them this season, and the rate at which Durant gets to the rim after setting a pick is incredible. But for a long stretch in the second half, this action wasn’t a part of the offense – it was the offense.

Slip-Screen City

Oklahoma City’s goal is usually the same: get Westbrook and Durant on one side of the floor and everyone else on the other, leaving a big chunk of space between the paint and the sideline. Typically Westbrook handles the ball on the wing and after being freed by a screen himself, Durant joins him, coming either from the block or the top of the key.

If the spacing is there, Durant is almost always going to slip the pick.

Because Scott Brooks has two big men on the floor, the spacing isn’t ideal. With Perkins clogging the paint, Chris Bosh doesn’t have far to travel in order to provide help as he meets Durant on Durant’s first dribble. The HEAT’s defense was at an all-season best throughout the game, and this play was no exception.

As well as Miami was rotating all night, Durant’s slip here is designed to take advantage of the type of defense Miami plays. The HEAT are rarely going to switch pick-and-rolls, instead opting to have the big-man defender (James) jump out on the ballhandler while the guard defender (Mario Chalmers) recovers. This is not playing it safe. Spoelstra wants his players to be proactive on defense, disrupting timing and passing lanes – hence the team’s struggles earlier in the season, when there was too much passive execution of an aggressive scheme.

So, knowing that Mario Chalmers isn’t going to switch, Durant has the opportunity to leave his defender behind and catch the ball in space. It’s a deadly proposition, and one that left many a defense suffering from a bad case of being dunked on.

But Bosh is on point, and Durant is forced into more of a post-up against a lengthy defender. Not a poor result, but not ideal.

Later, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder embarked on a four-minute stretch featuring little else besides Durant screens and the even more rare Westbrook screens.

This time, it’s Westbrook’s turn:

Same as before, the act of showing your intention to set a screen draws the second HEAT defender to the ball, and Westbrook fades into space. This time, it isn’t Bosh’s responsibility to help with Ibaka on the right wing.

Since the Thunder still had two bigs in the game, Wade is defending Nick Collison along the baseline, making Wade the primary help defender. And Wade is up to the task, making a perfect rotation – the type of heads-up play that really separates his defense in this game to that of other contests.

Bosh and Ray Allen do well to shut down the paint behind Wade, and even though Allen runs past Martin on the shot fake, Martin by no means has an open, comfortable shot.

Half a minute later, we have the exact same setup.

Westbrook slips again, but because Durant doesn’t make a move with his dribble, Chalmers doesn’t fully commit to jumping out on the ballhandler and trails Westbrook to the wing, with Wade again making himself available to help.

With no play, Westbrook goes to set another screen, and this is where Miami gets into a little bit of trouble. While Chalmers had been having one of his better defensive games of the year, he is not an experienced “big defender” in pick-and-rolls. He’s usually the man trying to fight through the screen, not the man playing blitz ball, and Durant splits the defenders.

Bosh is there with the help, but Durant is pretty good at this basketball thing.

The next two possessions, the Thunder start using the other side of the floor, and in turn show why these slips screens are better utilized at speed rather than with more deliberate, slower actions.

The first time the Thunder slow things down, Durant sets multiple picks for Westbrook and gets free when James gambles in the passing lane. The second time, James doesn’t bother with Westbrook.

Perhaps, having seen Durant slip so many picks before, James knows he doesn’t have to worry about Westbrook getting free of a screen, but moving slowly in a more condensed area, Durant never sells his intentions, either. James simply runs past Westbrook and Chalmers as if nothing ever happened. With Wade doing strong work playing out of position as the paint defender, Durant has to run up to the ball just for a catch.

Saying the HEAT had this set figured out would be too much, but they’re going to make the Thunder earn a reaction.

Here, with Wade switched onto Westbrook, Wade simply releases his man for the action and directs Chalmers back to Westbrook, containing Durant the entire time:

The last time the Thunder used the action, Durant comes close to setting a real pick, but James doesn’t play it honestly, again just jumping between Westbrook and Chalmers in order to stick with Durant. The risk here is Westbrook turning the corner and getting into the paint, but the HEAT’s defense was ready.

Many of you are probably wondering at this point where that sort of defense was during the first month of the season, and it’s something the HEAT had to ask themselves as well. Nothing changed until each player took responsibility.

“We had to own it at some point when we weren’t defending,” Erik Spoelstra said. “That we have to get to our identity. For better or worse, that’s how we’re built. Our energy comes from our commitment and activity on the defensive end and to do it for 48 minutes.

“We weren’t doing it consistently at the beginning of the year. We were trying to outscore teams, but recently we have been more committed to our identity.”

It also helps to be playing an opponent that you could see in a seven-game series.

“I thought our effort was as consistent as it’s been all year,” Shane Battier said.

“With Durant and Westbrook, they’re really good offensive players so they have our attention a little more. It helps the focus.”

That focus helped Miami win a game in December, but more importantly, that focus helped the team adapt their defense and decipher an action that the Thunder – without the shot-creating abilities of James Harden – could rely upon heavily come summertime.