Defending, Executing Pin Down Screens Key Tonight

The calendar has turned to February, and with the All-Star break looming and teams settling in the standings, the battles between Western Conference foes only heighten in intensity.

The Thunder is currently sitting second in the Western Conference, and the NBA for that matter, and tonight’s opponent, the Golden State Warriors, have the sixth best record in the West and ninth best overall. The two teams have split the previous matchups this season, and play with a similar brand of offensive efficiency and execution. Both teams rank in the top three in three-point shooting and free throw shooting, while Head Coach Scott Brooks’ squad edges the Warriors in many defensive categories. Regardless, team leaders like Kevin Durant are preparing the Thunder for a difficult test tonight.

“They’re going to be very intense,” Durant said. “They’re going to want to come out (strong), especially on the road against us. They’re looking forward to the opportunity to play the game. We are too… We have to try to string some together, and at home is the perfect time to do it. We just have to come out with energy.”

The similarities in the way the two teams score points doesn’t stop at the three-point and free throw lines. Just like the Thunder, the Warriors under Head Coach Mark Jackson do an excellent job of running their offense with speed, sharpness and strength. By bigs like David Lee setting solid screens and shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson squaring up to the basket for open looks, the Warriors present a variety of challenges on that end of the floor.

“They’re a good offensive team for a variety of reasons,” Brooks said. “They’re one of the best pin-down teams in basketball. They come off their screens hard. They set good screens and they have players that can catch and shoot with just a split second. Those same players can put the ball on the floor to create another open shot for their bigs or wing players… They run their offense really hard and they have really good players that run it.”

That screening action by the Warriors to get guards coming back up to the perimeter with their defenders trailing can cause a lot of confusion for defenders. The Thunder likes to run guys off the three-point line, and prides itself on not allowing uncontested shots. As a result, perimeter defenders like Durant, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha must be cognizant of the Warriors using those pin-down screens as a decoy for the true design of the play- an easy dump off into the paint as the Thunder defense recovers from the initial screening action.

“They do such a good job of flying off those pin-down screens for jump shots and we get so worried about that, they stretch us out,” Durant said. “Then they hit the dump-off pass in the paint. They’re tough to guard, they have so many different actions that they have to guard. That’s the best part about this league, you have to make second and third efforts. I think we have a team that can do that.”

It’s important, as Durant described, for the Thunder to be principled and disciplined in its defensive coverage of the Warriors’ pin-down screens and other offensive action. By staying within its core concepts, the Thunder can contest shots on the perimeter while also hustling back into proper defensive position to prevent points in the paint.

The reason the Thunder understands how important, and difficult, it is to guard those pin-down plays is because Brooks has his squad run that same type of screening action with a high frequency on the offensive end. Seeing how effective it can be first hand with Durant, Kevin Martin or Serge Ibaka coming off a pin-down screen helps the entire Thunder squad understand just how important it is to both team’s offenses tonight. Brooks tries to get his offense to be varied in the personnel, location and type of pin-down screens it runs, which can keep a defense on its heels.

“We like to run a few different things,” Brooks said. “We like to run it with different players and different positions… We like to change things up. That makes us a little unique in a lot of ways. The teams, they know what we do and hopefully we can execute it and be able to do it a little bit better than they are able to guard it.”

Most often, the play begins with Durant standing on one of the blocks, awaiting a down screen from any of the other four players on the floor. In certain settings Westbrook has been a primary screener, while other times the Thunder’s best screeners – Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka or Nick Collison are the ones doing the dirty work. Regardless, the Thunder finds ways to free up its most prolific scorer, who has also turned into quite a playmaker for others.

“It helps a lot because it causes a lot of mismatches and switches,” Durant said. “If Russ sets it on me a smaller is checking me and a bigger guy is guarding him. If Serge or Perk sets it on me, a big guy might switch off to me and smaller guy on them. If I shoot it and a big guy is on me, it gives them more room for offensive rebounds.”

As the season progresses, and perhaps starting even tonight, Durant and his teammates will continue to find creative ways to put the ball in the basket. NBA teams scout one another so closely that most opponents know every other team’s plays before the game even begins. As a result, the margins are slim and it comes down to execution, making the right play and finding the highest percentage look at the basket as possible on each trip down. That’s something the Thunder will look to do not only tonight, but for the rest of the season.

“We have to continue to exploit matchups,” Durant said. “That’s what it is, coming down in the late part of the season is where you can get the easiest points. People know all your plays already, so you have to find a way to get points off of random actions. I think just running and setting pin downs for me, K Mart, Serge, Thabo and doing random things like that is going to help us.”