Thunder Play-making by Reading the Defense

41 games in, exactly halfway through the Thunder’s 82-game regular season schedule, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team has plenty to be proud of and also a number of things it wants to improve upon.

From the end of September when the Thunder began training camp until now, the team has seen stretches of great play, like when it won 17 out of 18 games, and also periods when it struggled. Regardless of adversity or triumph, the Thunder has worked together on both ends of the floor to improve. Not only have players like Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams stepped up and filled new roles, but the entire team has adjusted on the fly to changing circumstances.

“Our team has grown over the last three months, and that’s what you want to see as the coach,” Brooks said. “You want to see improvement and you want to see the work that you put in on the floor transfer over into games.”

The team is currently riding a three-game winning streak, with a road victory over the Houston Rockets on Thursday, then a home win the next night against the Golden State Warriors. On Sunday, the Thunder followed it up with a strong second-half effort to take control against the Sacramento Kings.

One of the constants in all three games has been Serge Ibaka, who has scored 20-or-more points in each game. The Thunder forward’s ability to find open spots on the floor within the Thunder’s offensive scheme has allowed him to get clean looks at the basket, as has his pick-and-roll play with Kevin Durant.

“(Durant) is one of the guys who you have to make the decision if you’re going to help or stick with him,” Ibaka said. “I just read the game and also he’s been doing a great job this year of finding the guy and passing the ball.”

“(Ibaka) is a guy that excels off of playing everybody else,” Durant said. “He gives himself up by setting screens and rolls to the rim and the ball finds him. He sets great screens and moves the defense. He shifts the defense with his hard rolls to the basket and you have to respect his jumper.”

While Ibaka has been busy shooting a sizzling 27-for-37 from the field over the past three games, his partner in the two-man game has been both scoring and playmaking at a high level. Over the last seven contests, Durant has scored at least 30 points and dished out at least four assists in each game.

With the ball in his hands, Durant presents the ultimate triple threat- he’s always a danger to drive, shoot or pass. Lately, as teams have been overloading their defense to slow down Durant, he has found teammates and put them in positions to score.

“There’s confidence when you play with Kevin,” Ibaka explained. “When you’re open, he’s going to pass you the ball and make you more comfortable and gets your mind ready to make the play and the next decision for your teammates.”

“He’s obviously a scorer, but he loves making plays,” Brooks said. “It’s not about himself, it’s about doing the right thing every time down court, making plays for his teammates. He gets guys open looks just from his ability to attract double teams. He has the ability to pass out of double teams. Those aren’t easy passes to make.”

More and more, teams are trapping Durant out top when he has the ball, bringing over an extra defender when he is posted up and jumping out when Ibaka sets a screen for him. Almost methodically, Durant has made sure to drop off passes to the open man, generating situations where the rest of the offense can play 4-on-3 before the defense recovers. Even with those tough coverages, Durant has been a menace as a scorer, on the boards and even on the defensive end. As the Thunder’s leader, Durant knows that his job may change each night based on what his teammates need from him.

“I’m just reading the defense,” Durant explained. “Some teams want me to score more and try to take my teammates out, so I have to figure out how to get those guys going, then maybe later in the game try to get myself going. I have to see how I can serve the team and how I can be better for my team. Some nights it’s me shooting a lot and some nights it’s me rebounding and defending.”