Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant are making shots for a team that looks nothing like it did 72 hours ago.
Before Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Thunder and the Lakers, Metta World Peace was asked to name the No. 1 item on his to-do list. His response was quick.
"Top-lock Durant on that wide pin-down," World Peace said.
Top-lock meant denying Kevin Durant use of that down screen to pop out to the top of the floor for his favorite shot.
"You have to force him away," World Peace said. Otherwise, Durant would get the ball exactly where he wanted it. If he's able to catch, turn, elevate and release, there's not much anyone can do about it. That's usually true even if the big man switches out on him. It all happens so quickly that there's no time to react.
Early on in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, Kawhi Leonard defended Durant well on that wide pin-down on the weak side. Durant has perfect timing on this number. Like Dirk Nowitzki, he never leaves too early and he's usually able to slither around his defender, no matter how well that defender is positioned.
Leonard wasn't all-world -- it's not as if he diverted Durant to Tulsa on any of these sets -- but the rookie never got fooled in the first half. Both he and Stephen Jackson ably distributed their attention between Durant’s movements and the position of the ball. Durant’s first field goal didn’t come until about two minutes before intermission.
After halftime the Thunder trimmed the pin-down to something tighter and less elaborate, while adding a wrinkle. Rather than rely solely on the big men, the Thunder used Russell Westbrook more frequently as the screener. And irrespective of who laid out the screen, Durant ran a shorter distance and caught the ball much closer to the basket.
This became the Thunder's bread-and-butter over the final seven minutes of the game, after the Spurs closed a double-digit deficit to only four. The Thunder had lived a charmed existence for most of the game. Kendrick Perkins' shot chart looked like Kevin Garnett's, and Serge Ibaka appeared poised to set a record as the most proficient single-game playoff performer in NBA history. Many of those opportunities resulted from aggressiveness on the part of of the perimeter scorers, but now was the time to cash out on Ibaka's jumper (6-for-6 from 15 and beyond at that point) and turn to what was most familiar and reliable.
As Westbrook said after the game, "When teams start to make a run we gotta go to our first option -- and that's Kevin."
The Spurs were helpless. They tried sending double-teams when forced to switch Parker onto Durant at the elbow. When figuring out if -- or precisely when -- to help Parker on Durant proved to be too advanced of a decision for Leonard to make possession-by-possession, Gregg Popovich reshuffled the deck. He assigned Jackson to Durant and Ginobili to Westbrook. Didn't matter.
After an entire second half of bludgeoning the Spurs with this, after making them scramble their defensive assignments, after basically telling the Spurs that they will be tormented every trip down until they figure out how to defend this action, what did the Thunder do then?
They sent Durant back door, where James Harden found him at the rim with a floating lob of wholesomeness. The bucket extended the Thunder’s lead to nine with less than three minutes remaining in the game, and a free throw still to come for Durant.
If only that were it. The Thunder went back to the conventional pin-down on the next possession, and the one after that, and the one after that. Over a nine-possession stretch, Durant scored 16 points, extending what was a slim four-point lead to nine.
With the entire Spurs defense spooked each time Durant caught the ball at the elbow, Durant went into playmaking mode. With just over a minute left and the lead cut to six, he drove the ball right at Ginobili (back on Harden). Perkins stepped into to pin Ginobili down as Harden flared to the arc. Durant kicked the ball out to Harden for a 3-pointer that effectively iced the game.
Serge Ibaka's 11 field goals (and two shooting fouls drawn):
Baseline cut on the weak side to the basket, where he was the recipient of a high-low pass from Kendrick Perkins off an inbounds play.
Face-up 19-footer above the top of the circle off a pick-and-pop with Harden. Both defenders committed to Harden, which left Ibaka wide open.
Face-up 17-footer just inside the key. Sefolosha attacked off a broken play and scrambled the defense, leaving Ibaka uncovered.
Slam dunk on a dive to the basket. Fisher drove baseline, which drew Duncan away from Ibaka at the high post.
Slam dunk after playing pick-and-roll with Durant. Ibaka trailed just behind, as Durant split the defenders and drove the lane.
Baseline 15-footer on the left side, where he was left open after Duncan lent help on Durant's penetration.
Fouled at the basket after receiving another interior pass from Perkins off, yes, another inbounds play. Ibaka made both free throws.
Obscene cuff dunk one-on-one against Duncan. Four passes on the possession.
Duck-in at the basket. After Durant beat Leonard baseline in isolation on the left side, Duncan had to step out to help, leaving Ibaka unmanned. Ibaka made both free throws.
Face-up 16-footer on the left side. Durant went right off the pick, kicked the ball out to Westbrook, who swung it back to Ibaka.
Face-up 15-footer at the nail. When the defense shifted to Durant, Ibaka flashed to the stripe, where Durant found him.
Face-up 17 footer on the left side. The Harden-Nick Collison angle pick-and-roll on the prompted the kickout to Ibaka on the weak side.
Tip-in off a missed Harden jump shot. Ibaka established position on DeJuan Blair early and Blair never had a chance.
Ibaka's Game 4 bounty underscores a dominant theme that has emerged for the Thunder: Individual exploits can be fueled by mutual cooperation. Every single one of these 13 possessions was assisted (though none was credited to Durant when he hit Ibaka trailing on the drag screen). When the Thunder were in isolation, Ibaka made himself indispensable on the weak side, as he should because when you have guys like Durant, Harden and Westbrook attacking, a lot of perimeter defenders are going to be beat, which means a lot of players guarding Ibaka are going to have to step out and clean up the mess.
Ibaka won't drain six mid-range jumpers on a nightly basis -- nor would Oklahoma City want to see him taking that many long 2s in the flow of the offense. But he should be among the league leaders in duck-ins. So long as he's as quick to fill open space, and so long as the scorers remember he's there -- both unequivocally true in Game 4 -- he should be one of the most menacing weakside players in basketball.
It's always tricky praising a defense that surrenders more than 110 points per 100 possessions, but in the first half, the Thunder did a very nice job of protecting the paint and a reasonably good job on containing the Spurs on the perimeter.
When Thunder defenders sank to help near the basket, they were still mindful of what was lurking along the arc and in the corners. One of the benefits of switching on two-man offensive actions is that doing so requires fewer rotations. And fewer rotations mean shooters are left with little open space, and passing lanes are much harder to create.
In both Games 3 and 4, the Thunder were usually looking to recover at the first opportunity after the switch, and that's where their collective speed and size comes in so handy. Durant and Ibaka don’t have to stress. They both have the length to stay with most big men, and both have the quickness to stay with guards. But if they believe, for whatever reason, it’s important on a given possession to restore the original matchups, they can teleport themselves back in position in an instant because they’re that quick.
In short, the Thunder are no longer putting themselves in the position to have to make the lesser of two bad choices, which is how the Spurs generally beat you. But if you can hold down the fort for 18 seconds without getting stretched, or having your guard get taken out by a screen, or being forced to send your center to step out on penetration, then the Spurs have to find someone to create for himself. And that's not their game.
Few teams have the luxury to say, “Why fight over 60 screens if we don’t have to?” But the Thunder have the flexibility to run the coverages that makes the most sense for them. In the process of this discovery, they’re coming into themselves as a defensive unit. It's not yet constant, and there are still some occasional snafus late in possessions, but they looked as comfortable defensively in the first half Saturday night as they have all postseason.