Moving the Ball from the High Post
As a case study, Thabo Sefolosha is the perfect example to show that even veterans, not just young players, can improve their games dramatically within the Thunder’s development program.
Each of the past two seasons, the eighth-year guard from Switzerland has shot over 41 percent from the three-point line, a mark of an elite shooter from behind the arc. Combining that skill with his penchant for perimeter defense, and Sefolosha has become an ideal complementary member of the starting lineup to balance players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
As a team, the Thunder has improved its winning percentage each season at a similar trajectory as Sefolosha’s marksmanship from the three-point line. Heading into the 2013-14 season, the team hopes to replicate the areas it has performed highly and improve across the board.
“We do a lot of things well,” Sefolosha said. “We had a great season last year, so I think we’ll do a lot of the same, but we just want to do like we’ve been doing in the past – practicing really hard, taking it one day at a time and getting better.”
As one of the team’s elder statesmen, Sefolosha has earned the responsibility of bringing along younger players throughout the roster. As a player who has clearly shown his ability to dedicate time and energy into improving specific facets of his game and to being one with the team’s core principles, Sefolosha is a prime candidate to do some mentoring this year.
“I can help some of those guys,” Sefolosha said. “It’s going to be my eighth year in the NBA and I know the ropes a little bit. Hopefully I can give good advice to them and help them understand what we do in here with the OKC Thunder and help them also with everything around the NBA life, which is new for our rookies. Hopefully I’ll be able to help them and be a good voice in the locker room, helping the team.”
The pick and roll has become such a staple of the NBA game, that some teams run more than 60 such plays in a 48-minute game. The Thunder uses the pick-and-roll as one important aspect of its offensive system, and as a result, has been working hard to perfect different parts of those sets.
When a Thunder ball-handler like Reggie Jackson or Kevin Durant turns the corner after being the beneficiary of a screen, oftentimes two opposing defenders converge, leaving the screener wide open. Most of the time that player is in the high post, which is the area right around the free throw line. When Thunder bigs like Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins find themselves with the ball in that area, they have a decision to make. The options are to shoot, dribble to the basket or pass to an open teammate, and it all hinges on whether the other four men on the floor are in the correct spot.
“The spacing is important,” Collison explained. “If we have a guy in the corner and a guy up on the slot and we’re spaced out perfectly, then those decisions are a whole lot easier. There’s a lot less traffic in the lane and the pass becomes obvious. When we have really good spacing, we have less turnovers because it’s the obvious pass, the easy pass.”
As a result, every big on the Thunder roster has been working to improve all facets of their offensive game so they can truly be a triple-threat when put in that position in the high post. As Head Coach Scott Brooks explained, the Thunder needs their playmakers to go beyond Durant, Jackson and Russell Westbrook when he returns to action, but in the flow of the offense, every player needs to be able to make the correct basketball play.
Thanks to the work each player puts in over the summer and in training camp, the team is becoming filled with players who can impact the game on multiple levels, while still staying within their roles.
“I try to get better in every aspect of my game,” Ibaka said. “Not only offense, I’m trying to help my teammates get better too… I like to mix it up sometimes with a fake, shoot sometimes and pass the ball, just reading the game.”
On Thursday night, Thunder big men were catching at the free throw line, assessing the defense and then for the most part, making the right choice. Every part of the Thunder’s game is still a work in progress, but a good sign came in the game against the Pelicans when the Thunder knocked down eight corner three-pointers, which according to Brooks are one of the best and most efficient shots in the game. Thanks to shooters like Thabo Sefolosha, Ryan Gomes and Jeremy Lamb being spaced correctly on the floor and the Thunder’s bigs identifying the best play, Brooks’ squad is finding success.
“It’s a product of us continuing to evolve and get better,” Brooks said. “It’s something that we focus on because of our spacing and we want to continue to do that. Those are great shots. Those are shots you should be able to make 40 percent of the time.”
“That’s something we’ve been working on for a while,” Durant explained. “Our bigs are doing a great job of passing the basketball.”
Scoring within the offensive system and letting the team’s execution present easy opportunities has been the Thunder’s main focus this preseason. Asking players even of Durant’s caliber to go one-on-five to take the ball and make a shot is a low-percentage chance at getting a basket. Instead, swinging the ball from side-to-side, probing the defense and using screens, cuts and movement off the ball are all ways in which the team can create clean looks at the rim for every player on the floor. On Thursday night, seven different Thunder players scored in double digits using that strategy, something team leaders like Durant loves to see.
“That’s beautiful when you see so many guys touching the basketball,” Durant said. “When we start to move the ball, it makes it easier on all of us. It’s our job just to make shots.”