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Film Study: How OKC's three-guard lineup dominates in the clutch

The Thunder have been elite in the 4th quarter -- thanks in large part to this group of guards

Of the 22 teams that will continue their season at Disney World in July, none have depended on clutch play more than the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder have played a league-high 42 games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Of the Thunder’s 40 wins, 29 (73%) have been within five in the last five. Only the Charlotte Hornets (17/23, 74%) had a higher ratio of wins that have come in the clutch. OKC is just 11-11 in games that weren’t within five in the last five.

The Thunder’s success in close games overlaps with their success with all three of their playmaking guards – Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder – on the floor. OKC has outscored its opponents by an incredible 28.6 points per 100 possessions in 401 total minutes with the three guards on the floor. That’s the best on-court NetRtg, by a healthy margin, among 602 three-man combinations that have played at least 300 minutes together. More than half (212) of those minutes have come in the fourth quarter or overtime, with 104 of those counting as “clutch” minutes.

The Thunder have outscored their opponents by 268 total points in those 401 minutes (32.1 per 48) with all three guards in the game, and they’ve been outscored by 111 points in 2,691 minutes otherwise. They have twice as many wins (they’re 16-20) as any other team in games they trailed after the third quarter. Though the three guards have averaged less than seven minutes per game together, those minutes have been *the difference between a loss and a win 13 times this season.

(*Example: In a four-point win in Phoenix on Jan. 31, the Thunder were a plus-22 in 9:46 with all three on the floor and outscored by 18 points in 38:14 otherwise.)

There are 11 players that have shot better than 50% on at least 40 clutch field goal attempts. Three of the 11 are Gilgeous-Alexander (57.4%), Paul (53.5%) and Schroder (51.1%).

Very little of that clutch scoring has been a result of passing. The Thunder have had the league’s most efficient clutch offense (124.0 points scored per 100 possessions) with its lowest clutch assist rate (by a wide margin), having recorded assists on just 33.8% of their clutch baskets. Paul (4/46), Gilgeous-Alexander (5/27) and Schroder (10/24) have been assisted on less than 20% of their 97 total clutch buckets.

It’s very much a my turn, your turn situation. In 1,387 minutes total minutes on the floor together, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander have just 48 total assists to each other. In the Rockets’ iso-heavy offense, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have 122 total assists to each other in fewer (1,348) minutes on the floor together.

But the three guards have been effective enough when it’s been their turn. The Thunder are the only team with three players – Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder – that have averaged at least seven pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game, according to Synergy play-type tracking. And they’re the only team with three guys (same three) that have averaged at least 10 drives per game.

Previous editions of this series have noted the off-the-dribble success of the Celtics and Jazz. Overall, the Thunder, who rank 14th offensively this season, haven’t been as efficient as either of those two teams. Both Boston and Utah have more off-the-dribble weapons than OKC, which doesn’t bring all three of its weapons together until the last few minutes of each half.

When they’ve brought all three weapons together, the Thunder have been ridiculously good. In their last 24 appearances together, the trio of Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder had a negative plus-minus just three times.

The supporting cast has been solid. Danilo Gallinari has the eighth highest true shooting percentage (61.1%) among the 55 players averaging at least 18 points per game. Steven Adams has been huge on the glass, while Nerlens Noel has been both efficient offensively and disruptive defensively off the bench. (The screen-setting of both centers has also been critical to the Thunder’s off-the-dribble attack.) Luguentz Dort and Terrance Ferguson are two more reasons why the Thunder have a top-10 defense for a fourth straight season.

But the Thunder’s success in the clutch has been driven by the playmakers. And they each have their own way of getting to their spots.

The CP Set-Up

Paul has scored 1.09 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the second best mark among 49 players who have averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game. He has an effective field goal percentage of 54.2% on pull-up jumpers, the second best mark among 139 players who have attempted at least 100.

Paul’s best work sometimes comes before he uses a screen. If he doesn’t have the best angle from which to attack and make sure his defender gets hit by the screen, he’ll use an extra dribble or two to create that angle. Here are three examples from other points in games, followed by a few in the clutch.

Play 1. After Nerlens Noel regains his footing, he sets a screen to get Paul toward the middle of the floor. But Jamal Murray “ices” the screen. As Noel changes the angle of the screen, Paul uses one behind-the-back dribble to get Murray leaning and another to get around the new screen, which Murray gets caught in. With Nikola Jokic not ready to contest, Paul steps into a comfortable mid-range jumper.

Number to know: Paul has shot 53.9% from mid-range, the best mark among 79 players with at least 100 mid-range attempts.

Play 2. Noel comes over for another pick-and-roll from the right side of the floor. Paul George is initially in position to push Paul high above the screen, but a hesitation dribble gets George under the screen and Paul crosses over into a step-back 3-pointer.

Number to know: Paul has taken 34.7% of his shots from 3-point range, down from a career-high 49.3% last season. That’s the fourth biggest drop among 200 players with at least 250 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons.

Play 3. Noel sets up for a screen at the top of the floor and Paul sets up Georges Niang with a crossover from left to right. He then crosses back over to the left, puts Niang behind him, draws help from Ed Davis, and tosses a lob to the rolling Noel.

Number to know: The Thunder have scored a league-best 1.25 points per possession on roll-man possessions, according to Synergy tracking.

Play 4. Gallinari and Noel set up for a double-drag screen in transition. An in-and-out dribble gets Buddy Hield leaning toward the first screen as Paul goes the other way. He draws help from Nemanja Bjelica, setting up Gallinari for an open 3-pointer from the top.

Number to know: Paul has assisted on 59 of Gallinari’s 3-pointers. That’s the second most assists on 3-pointers from one player to a single teammate, trailing only Bam Adebayo’s 70 assists on Duncan Robinson 3-pointers.

Play 5. After Ferguson’s second screen gets Miles Bridges switched onto Paul, he gets both Bridges and Cody Zeller leaning with a crossover from left to right. He heads back left and then “snakes” in front of Zeller to a pull-up jumper from the free throw line.

Number to know: Paul (17-for-27), Schroder (7-for-13) and Gilgeous-Alexander (6-for-9) are a combined 30-for-49 (61.2%) on clutch mid-range shots this season.

Play 6. Like Murray in the first play, Josh Okogie initially gets between Paul and the screener. Gallinari gets out of the way and Adams steps up for another screen. Paul gets Okogie leaning left and then uses a hard crossover to run him into Adams. Another mid-range pull-up puts the Thunder up four.

Number to know: Paul has been assisted on just 18.0% of his field goals. That’s up from 13.9% with the Rockets last season, but still the third lowest rate among 164 players with at least 200 field goals, higher than only the marks of Harden (14.3%) and Damian Lillard (17.1%).

Which Way Shai

Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 0.97 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, a mark that ranks 12th among the 49 players who have averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game and is a hair better than the marks of Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.

The second-year guard doesn’t pass as much as Paul, but he does get to the line. Gilgeous-Alexander has drawn fouls on 8.8% of his drives, the 11th highest rate among the 46 players who have averaged at least 10 drives per game.

He’ll take some indirect paths to the basket. Gilgeous-Alexander will frequently “snake” pick-and-rolls, changing direction after using the screen to keep his defender behind him and get to the middle of the paint. His last couple of steps are usually slow and deliberate, though (like a Kyrie Irving) you don’t necessarily know from which foot he’ll take off or with which hand he’ll finish.

Here are a few examples of Gilgeous-Alexander’s wiliness, featuring a couple of clutch buckets at the end.

Play 1. In transition, Gilgeous-Alexander bumps Lonzo Ball under the basket, hits the breaks, and banks in a lefty floater.

Number to know: The Thunder rank last in both fast break points (9.3) and second chance points (10.5) per game after ranking fifth (18.2) and second (15.5) last season.

Play 2. Gilgeous-Alexander runs a high pick-and-roll with Adams. Jrue Holiday does a decent job of getting over the screen, but SGA takes contact from Holiday and is able to toss in another wrong-footed floater over Derrick Favors.

Number to know: Gilgeous-Alexander ranks 10th in the league with 110 non-restricted-area buckets in the paint. The 44.2% he’s shot on those shots ranks 28th among 95 players who have attempted at least 100.

Play 3. Noel changes the angle of another screen, taking Reggie Jackson off the ball, and Gilgeous-Alexander drains a more standard floater over Ivica Zubac.

Number to know: Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 19.3 points and 6.1 rebounds, up from 10.8 and 2.8 last season. The rebounds jump (3.3 per game) is the biggest among 234 players who have played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons, and the points jump (8.5 per game) is the third biggest among that same group of players.

Play 4. Once more, Noel changes the angle of the screen as Gilgeous-Alexander goes behind the back to put George in his rearview mirror. He snakes in front of Montrezl Harrell and gets to an open spot on the other side of the lane before George can recover.

Number to know: As a team, the Thunder have averaged 25.1 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions, third most in the league. Their 0.96 points per possession on ball-handler possessions ranks fifth.

Play 5. Gilgeous-Alexander uses an Adams screen to attack the middle of the floor. He gets Joel Embiid in the air with a Rondo move, and then comes back to finish around the recovering Embiid with his left hand.

Number to know: The Thunder are one of three teams – the Rockets and Lakers are the others – that rank in the top 10 in three of the “four factors” on offense, with offensive rebounding percentage (in which they rank 29th) being the exception.

Play 6. Gilgeous-Alexander snakes another pick-and-roll and gets Jeremy Lamb on his hip. Adams rolls to the rim and sets a “Gortat” screen on Domantas Sabonis, allowing SGA to take a foul from Lamb and still finish.

Number to know: The Thunder have outscored their opponents by 5.0 points per game on free throws, the league’s biggest differential by a wide margin. The next biggest is +2.7 points per game (Houston).

Schroder on the Second Side

Schroder is the one of the three who has been assisted on a decent percentage of his buckets, both clutch and non-clutch. He’s been assisted on 49.5% of his field goals, the highest rate of his career and up from 33.7% last season. That’s the third biggest jump among 218 players with at least 100 field goals in each of the last two seasons.

With his quickness, Schroder’s an ideal second-side ball-handler, able to take advantage of a rotating defense. He’s also been an improved shooter. He’s shot 41.5% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, up from 35.0% last season and the 20th best mark among 67 players who’ve attempted at least 200.

Play 1. The Thunder get a cross match in transition, with Jaxson Hayes guarding Paul. When Noel slips a screen, both Hayes and Nicolo Melli retreat into the paint, forcing E’Twaun Moore to rotate over. Paul gets the ball to Schroder, who attacks Hayes’ close-out, draws help from Melli, and drops the ball off to Noel.

Number to know: Noel has shot 84.3% in the restricted area, the best mark among 204 players with at least 100 restricted-area attempts.

Play 2. Adams comes up to set a screen for Paul, but before using it, CP3 pitches the ball to Schroder, backing up to midcourt so that he can get a running start against Frank Jackson, who has just entered the game.

Number to know: Schroder has shot 62.9% in the restricted area, up from just 53.9% through his first six seasons in the league.

Play 3. When Gilgeous-Alexander and Adams run a pick-and-roll from the left side of the floor, Holiday (defending Schroder) sets up at the nail. That gives Schroder a seam to attack when SGA swings the ball to the weak side.

Number to know: Schroder has an effective field goal percentage of 53.2%, easily the best mark of his career and up from 47.0% last season. That’s the ninth biggest jump among 200 players with at least 250 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons.

Play 4. Paul, guarded by Kent Bazemore, uses screens from Schroder and Adams to attack from the left side. With Bazemore caught in the first screen, and Yogi Ferrell unable to get in front, Paul drives at Alex Len. Bazemore sinks to help on Adams’ roll to the rim and Schroder is left open on the left wing.

Number to know: While the Thunder have seen a drop in assist percentage (AST/FGM), they’ve seen the league’s second biggest increase in ball movement, from 300 passes per 24 minutes of possession (29th) last season to 326 (17th) this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Play 5. Set up on the weak side, Schroder attacks an opened-up Landry Shamet. He gets Shamet’s momentum going left, slams on the brakes, and steps back into a 17-footer.

Number to know: Schroder has shot 48.1% from mid-range, the best mark of his career and the fourth best mark among 21 players with at least 200 mid-range attempts.

Play 6. Ferguson sets an initial screen for Paul to get Shamet switched onto the ball. Schroder then comes over and slips out of a screen for Paul and into an open 3-pointer from the top before the defensively challenged Lou Williams can recover.

Number to know: Paul’s 76 assists to Schroder are, by far, the most from any of the three guards to one of the others. Next most is Gilgeous-Alexander’s 38 assists to Schroder.

More Minutes for the Trio?

When all three of Paul, Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander are on the floor, OKC is generally upgrading at the wing from a player – Dort or Ferguson – who can’t shoot or do much off the dribble. That can make a huge difference for an offense that relies so much on half-court execution. According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Thunder rank third in overall half-court efficiency (0.998 points per possession), trailing only Dallas (1.024) and Milwaukee (1.009).

A big key to the three-guard success is that, playing small at the wings, the Thunder haven’t suffered defensively. They’ve allowed less than a point per possession in those 401 minutes with all three on the floor and part of that success has been an increase in opponent turnover rate (which Kemba Walker knows something about). The Thunder have forced 14.0 turnovers per 100 possessions (19th in the league) overall, but have forced 15.5 per 100 with Paul, Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander all in the game.

Part of the defensive success has also come from opponent 3-point shooting. The Thunder are the only team that ranks in the top 10 in both opponent 3-point percentage (34.4%, fifth) and the (lowest) percentage of their opponent shots that have come from 3-point range (36.9%, seventh). The latter has been higher (39.2%), but the former has been much lower 30.9% with all three guards on the floor.

Opponents shooting 30.9% from 3-point range is not sustainable. Neither is the 61.2% that Paul, Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander have shot on clutch mid-range shots. There’s obviously some luck in just how good OKC has been when the three have played together.

The Thunder are still going to be better when they play their best players. And the postseason should allow them to play the three guards together for more than just seven minutes per game. This was the third best team in the league (34-13) after Thanksgiving, and it hadn’t yet optimized its rotation.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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