How the Thunder Implements a New Wrinkle to a Play

MIAMI -- In the first quarter of a 106-94 Thunder win over the Miami Heat, Russell Westbrook, Domas Sabonis and Steven Adams executed a pick-and-roll play to a tee, ending in Adams hammering the ball home for two points off a Westbrook bounce-pass.

The key to the play, however, was Sabonis. As Adams screened Westbrook’s defender, the rookie forward Sabonis lined up in the lane and planted a back screen on Adams’ defender, Hassan Whiteside. The commotion in the paint prevented Whiteside, one of the league’s preeminent shot blockers, from retreating back to the rim, and both Westbrook and Adams had clear, parallel angles to the rim.

“That’s a set we run,” Head Coach Billy Donovan noted. “Sometimes (Sabonis) will screen, sometimes he doesn’t screen, based on where Steven’s man is. Sometimes he needs to get out quickly.”

Utilizing Sabonis as a screener in that situation isn’t completely groundbreaking – there’s not much new under the sun in the modern NBA – but it’s an interesting wrinkle that the Thunder don’t always utilize every time they run middle pick-and-roll. Some of it depends on whether Adams’ man is playing back near the rim, is up at the level of the screen or is hanging in the middle somewhere.

The other aspect of the Thunder strategy is simply remaining unpredictable. A steady diet of top-of-the-key pick-and-rolls is the NBA equivalent of bread and butter. It’s effective, but it sometimes requires some variety. And that’s what Donovan and his coaching staff are charged with on a daily basis, not just in analyzing the Thunder plays but also in scouting its upcoming opponent.

“It’s a matter of watching tape, looking at coverages and how teams are guarding and try to figure out ways to generate easy baskets,” Donovan said.

The challenging part of an 82-game season, however, is finding the time to actually make sure the team is on the same page about opportunities the coaches are seeing in practice. With a game against a new opponent every other night, there are dozens of specific areas of note that Thunder players have to prepare for.

Countless hours of film study and never-ending practices just aren’t practical and eventually have diminishing returns or even deleterious effects. So the coaching staff picks and chooses their moments.

“We may make reference that there will be opportunities to do this, this or this in this play,” Donovan said. “Sometimes it’s diagrammed straight up in a timeout. Sometimes it’s mentioned in shootaround. Sometimes it may be mentioned before the game.”

Fortunately, the Thunder roster is lined with young intelligent players and a handful of experienced players who can digest the right amounts of information at the right time. The next part, actually being able to implement that information in the game, is another impressive aspect of this growing, developing Thunder squad.

“These guys are pretty cerebral that you can do that stuff on the fly and give them that stuff and they’re pretty good at executing what you ask them to do,” Donovan said. “Our IQ is pretty good. Players are getting to know me as coach and me getting to know them as players in terms of what they can absorb and what they can do.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Practice Roundup Notes - Dec. 28, 2016

- Both Victor Oladipo and Cameron Payne were seen playing in three-on-three and four-on-four action after the conclusion of the Thunder’s practice session in Miami on Wednesday before the team took off for Memphis. While Donovan said that both players are likely going to still be out for the Thunder’s Thursday night clash with the Memphis Grizzlies, there is definitely positive momentum towards both players’ return to action.

- Improvement for the Thunder won’t always be in a straight line, but Donovan and the staff have seen progress during the past couple of weeks. The Thunder has won four straight games, tied for the longest current winning streak in the NBA, and is playing well despite the absence of Oladipo and Payne, both former lottery picks who have enjoyed success in early years of their careers.

  • “We’ve gotten better and we’ve improved,” Donovan said. “A lot of times a team’s incline in a positive direction isn’t this smooth incline. Sometimes you go up and dip back down. Over the past ten days and two weeks, we’ve gotten progressively better.”

Thunder Talk: Coach Donovan - Dec. 28, 2016