Moving the Ball to Offensive Success

On many occasions this season, Russell Westbrook will bring the ball down court, see Kendrick Perkins sprinting towards him to set a screen, and have Kevin Durant on the wing, Thabo Sefolosha in the corner and Serge Ibaka in the opposite corner. With that vantage point, Westbrook will have a bevy o]f options as he slices towards the rim.

So far in the preseason, the Thunder’s off-ball playmakers have done a good job of spacing the floor, moving without the ball and getting their feet set. The player with the ball in his hands, thus far, has been extremely effective in finding the open man for a high percentage bucket. Over the past three preseason games, all wins, the Thunder has racked up 34 assists, 26 assists and 25 assists, en route to an 111.7 points per game average. Heading into back-to-back tilts against the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks, Head Coach Scott Brooks wants to see his team continue that offensive execution.

“The last two preseason games, we still want to keep building our good habits of continuing to play good team basketball,” Brooks said. “Our assists, our passing has been terrific, even in the game where we didn’t have a high number, our passes were still there.”

Last season the Thunder averaged 19.2 assists per game in wins compared to 16.9 in losses, and went 22-5 when creating more assists than it opponent. Conversely, Brooks’ squad turned the ball over only 15.9 times in wins versus 17.5 times in losses. It should be no surprise that the Thunder shot 4.3 percentage points higher from the floor and 4.1 percentage points higher from the three-point line in those games where assist totals were up.

With all of that data, it’s clear that the Thunder recognizes the importance of sharing the basketball with one another. Cohesiveness and a commitment to making the right play, according to Sefolosha, has been the key so far in the preseason.

“Just trusting one another,” Sefolosha said. “Getting the big guys involved by letting them make the play when the point guards get double-teamed. I think that’s been very effective for us and they’ve been doing a great job…We definitely have some things we want to keep working on… We’re still building and I think we already feel pretty good.”

A development in the Thunder’s offensive scheme over the past few years has been the continual dedication to improvement by Ibaka, whose skills have been enhanced each day he spends with the coaches at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center. Last year Ibaka became one of the squad’s best mid-range shooters, and in last night’s win against Denver, he stretched that range to the three-point line, knocking down two from the corner. Forcing opponents to respect the nimble forward’s shooting stroke will only open up avenues for drivers.

“We still need Serge to stay within a range where he’s going to make a high percentage,” Brooks said. “He’s worked on it and he makes them in practice. It’s not something that we’re just experimenting during games. He’s definitely worked on them in practice and he’s taking them… There are going to be nights where he’s open. And we all feel confident (in him), especially in the corners. I think that range, 22 feet, he can knock that down.”

Ibaka’s commitment on the offensive end has only been matched by his daily devotion to his defensive craft. As an All-Defensive Team selection and runner-up Defensive Player of the Year, Ibaka showed a knack for blocking shots, leading the league with 3.7 per game. Over the past few seasons and this summer, Ibaka has also worked on defending different types of big men – whether they are quick, deadly long-range shooters or power post-up players.

“I think he can guard fours and fives, and we’re good,” Brooks said. “I think we have a different look when he’s at the five. We can switch more and he’s just a unique athlete. With our traditional lineup with Perk, we can also switch now that Perk has a good feel for what we do. I feel confident that either guy can guard either position.”

With the regular season cresting on the horizon after this upcoming back-to-back set, the Thunder knows where it’s most important duty lies. Brooks and his staff, along with team leaders like Durant, Westbrook and Nick Collison have set the standard that this team will be defensive minded first and foremost. Against Chicago and Dallas, that side of the ball will be the one most focused upon.

“Defensively, we talk about it every day, every meeting, every timeout, every halftime,” Brooks said. “We are a defensive team, we have to really continue to build on that part of our game. We’ve added some different things defensively that I think the players have done a good job of picking things up on the fly… We still want to keep playing well in these last two games. Guys are going to get opportunities to do well.”