Thunder's Defense Up to Task of Guarding Triangle Offense

The Thunder built its identity as a defensive team in its second season in Oklahoma City, and a commitment to that end of the floor helped lead to a 27-game turnaround and the franchise’s first playoff berth in six seasons.

The Thunder’s defense did a complete 180 this season, as the team finished the regular season ranked 10th in scoring defense at 98 points per game, sixth in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.8%, third in rebounding at 43.5 per game, first in blocks (5.86) and sixth in steals (7.97).

So in the three days leading into its first-round playoff series against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder spent significant time reinforcing its defensive principles.

“Our mindset has been defense,” rookie James Harden said. “Each practice was strictly defense – transition, matching up, just really getting after it on the defensive end. This is going to be a physical team and a physical series and we have to be prepared for it.”

It’s also a series that will pit a young Thunder team against a veteran Lakers squad that employs and executes a seldom-used offense in basketball: the triangle offense. The Lakers swear by it while the Minnesota Timberwolves have dabbled with it; first-year head coach Kurt Rambis learned it while as a Lakers assistant.

Invented by Hall of Fame coach Sam Barry and refined by Lakers consultant and former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter, the triangle offense has been a staple of Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, who has had such success with it that he finds players to fit its system.

In short, the triangle is a well-spaced offense that is difficult to defend. It’s called a triangle because there’s always a triangle around the ball, such as the ball being in the post with a player positioned at the elbow and another on the wing. The key component is making the ball change sides of the floor with crisp passes.

“They’re one of the top assist teams in the league because they make the ball change ends of the floor because of the pass, not the dribble,” an NBA scout said. “When they do feed the post they typically screen the opposite block and basically they never stand still.”

Because the Lakers have so many interchangeable, multidimensional parts, they typically have as many as four players on the floor who can play all five positions. Kobe Bryant can play on the wing, up top or in the post. So can Lamar Odom. So can Ron Artest. So can Pau Gasol. You get the point.

The first pass initiates the triangle and the second pass is when the action occurs. And there’s dozens of counters to it. Mastering those options is what the Lakers spend a lot of time on during practices, and there are times where the triangle is so fluid that there isn’t a need to call out plays.

“There’s not pattern to it,” the scout said. “The triangle is a read and react offense.”

One of the Lakers’ most frequently used options is where they have a player – Bryant, Odom and Artest included – cut through the lane for a clear-cut post up. Their spacing on such a play makes it difficult to defend.

“They’re always properly spaced with one guy on the post so when you dig down on a post player you’re coming from 30 feet away or whatever instead of 10, 15 feet, which is a big difference,” forward Nick Collison said. “So on the pass out, the rotations are further and they put shooters out there so it’s hard to not get caught playing one-on-one against their post players.”

So how does a team defend against the triangle and its multitude of counters? The scout said that some teams try to get the Lakers to burn as much of the shot clock as possible by picking up the ball handler full court and adding pressure; remember, the triangle requires two passes to get started. As simple as it sounds, some teams have decided who or where they don’t want the Lakers to have the ball, and make their strongest effort at denying it. Clogging the lane also prevents a lot of movement because, as head coach Scott Brooks said, the Lakers cut as hard as any team in basketball.

“We have to play hard and we have to be able to keep them from cutting hard,” Brooks said. “We have to do our defensive schemes and principles and we have to do them well.”

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