Thunder Guards Work on Pick-and-Roll Execution

As he enters the half-court, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has dozens of minute, calculated decisions to make. The key for point guards is to make those choices second nature and over the course of his first five years in the league, Westbrook and Head Coach Scott Brooks have found ways to do so.

When it comes to operating out of the pick-and-roll, Westbrook and the Thunder can work together to turn different variations of the most used play in the NBA into scoring opportunities. Accepting the pick and attacking a post player, accepting the pick and attacking a guard, rejecting the pick, not using the pick and splitting the screen are all options for Westbrook and other Thunder ball handlers like Eric Maynor and Kevin Durant.

“We practice all of them and it’s their natural instincts to manipulate that screen and make a play,” Brooks said. “It’s always the first look to attack and be aggressive so the defense has to react, then we have to make plays out of that. Russell and our guards are doing a good job with our pick and roll game.”

While most of the decisions have become innate responses to each individual scenario, those instantaneous judgment calls are based off of tiny perceptions by the ball-handler of how the defense is playing. If the opposing defender jumps below the screen too early, there’s the chance for a driving lane or wide open jump shot. If the pair of defenders jump out to trap, there will be an open man, typically a big like Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka, who are then responsible for continuing the offense with either a shot or a pass.

“It’s just based on how the defense is playing, what coverage they’re in, it varies,” Westbrook said. “If there are two people on me, then somebody else is open and you have to find the open guy… Everybody is doing a good job of making the extra pass.”

Ibaka’s highly reliable mid-range jumper has become an essential weapon out of the pick-and-roll, as the Thunder run quick, no-frills offensive sets that often result in high-percentage looks for the fourth-year man from the Congo. Some of those offensive plays are called ahead of time by the coaching staff or the point guard, but mostly there is improvisation involved. Westbrook, Maynor and Durant must solve the puzzle in front of them each time to work the ball to the open teammate.

“I think they have to react off the defense,” Brooks said. “If you pre-meditate your move, it usually doesn’t work out the way you think it’s going to work out. We work on a variety of things so that when they do see it, they can react quickly with their instincts.”

Sometimes Westbrook or Durant manage to work their way into the lane to create easy opportunities for themselves at the rim. On other occasions diagonal passes to the corner for three-point shots for Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin are available, as are bounce passes to Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet at the dunker spot. None of those options, however, would be available if it weren’t for the physical sacrifice players like Perkins, Ibaka, Collison and Thabeet make as the screener both on the ball and away from the ball.

“It’s huge,” Westbrook said of the role screens have in the offense. “The bigs give their bodies up every day, every time setting screens, getting guys open, getting myself open. It makes easy for us to make decisions.”