The weapon the Thunder can't live without

Kevin Durant, Serge IbakaJamie Squire/NBAE/Getty Images

The Kevin Durant-Serge Ibaka two-man game must generate offense for the Thunder.If the Oklahoma City Thunder drop this series to the Memphis Grizzlies, the loss will be remembered most in OKC as a resounding affirmation of Russell Westbrook. Each of the past three seasons, the Thunder have featured one of the five most efficient offenses in the NBA, but absent Westbrook, they can’t find anything reliable in the half court.

Examine the assets on the floor, and the pick-and-roll game with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka seems like a natural choice. The Thunder are well aware of this and have looked diligently for it. Every once in a while, a Durant-Ibaka sequence plays out precisely how Oklahoma City wants it to proceed.

In the fourth quarter of the Grizzlies' 87-81 win Saturday that put them up 2-1 in the West semifinals, just before the nine-minute mark, Marc Gasol, along with Quincy Pondexter, corralled Durant off the screen. With both defenders attending to Durant, Ibaka slipped through the lane where Durant hit him on the move with an overhead pass. Darrell Arthur’s rotation from the right/weakside corner onto Ibaka was prompt, but Ibaka wisely looked immediately at Kevin Martin, whom Arthur left in the right corner. The easy pass from Ibaka to Martin was quickly converted into a Martin 3-pointer that trimmed the Grizzlies’ lead to four.

There’s nothing advanced here, but when Martin is parked on the weakside perimeter and either Durant or Ibaka can force help – something that should happen frequently – this two-man action should generate quality offense for Oklahoma City. When the Grizzlies throw multiple bodies at Durant -- and they did this selectively, but not always, on Saturday afternoon -- this is the single most effective way to counter the pressure and find good looks at the basket.

Unfortunately for the Thunder, that Martin 3-pointer is more outlying than representative. Ibaka’s midrange shooting slump has rendered the pick-and-pop game ineffective. Other variations of the Durant-Ibaka two-man game haven’t produced much, either. In the fourth quarter, we saw a wrinkle Oklahoma City likes to trigger in its pin-down for Durant -- a “pin-and-slip” for Ibaka. As Durant makes the catch coming off Ibaka’s down screen, he immediately shuttles the ball to Ibaka, who takes it to the rim. On this possession, only Tayshaun Prince stood between Ibaka and the rim, but Ibaka opted to pull up and shoot an off-rhythm baseline jumper that rattled out.

This is the kind of offense the Thunder desperately need. Granted, Memphis generally handles it well, but there’s a lot of acreage to defend on the floor when Durant gets a solid pick up top. Whether it’s Tony Allen, Prince or Pondexter, guarding Durant coming off that pick is hellacious. Almost any forward progress by Durant triggers a rotation. Meanwhile, Ibaka needs to be adequately shaded if he rolls, and contested if he pops.

There’s a lot to work with in these pick-and-roll sets, and Durant must be able to depend on his best big man to convert possessions into points. If he can’t, the Thunder don’t have much of a chance in this series because few NBA games can be won by teams that score 86.2 points per 100 possessions, which is what the Thunder tallied in Game 3.

The chess game at the power forward spot continues. During the fourth, the Grizzlies hid Zach Randolph on Derek Fisher both early in the quarter and inside of five minutes. In one instance, the Thunder responded by calling for a high pick-and-roll for Durant with Fisher as a screener, and attacking Randolph, who has to account for Fisher fading to a spot along the arc and still worry about pushing Durant baseline. That’s a tough assignment for anyone, but especially so for Randolph, whose route map is pretty limited. No matter, because Fisher was whistled for a moving screen, and the Thunder were never really able to leverage their stretch or speed against Memphis’ girth.

The big-small tug-of-war gives Darrell Arthur a chance to showcase his versatility. He got a shot as the big 4 against a Thunder small-ball lineup late in the third and early in the fourth and fared well hiding out on Fisher and DeAndre Liggins. Arthur was one of those guys who came into the league tarred as a ‘tweener, but in this context Arthur’s tweenerness is useful for Memphis. He’s mobile enough to tread water as a perimeter defender, can defend the pick-and-roll and can handle most of the elbow responsibilities in the Grizzlies' offense. He’s a terrible rebounder as a power forward, but when the Thunder go small, that shortcoming becomes less of a liability.

Encouraging Durant to guard big men in a situation like this hasn’t been any easier than the sales job Miami’s staff had to perform for LeBron James, though we’ve heard much less about the dynamics in Oklahoma City. But there Durant was in the closing minutes of the game matched up against Gasol on the defensive end.

Despite the mismatch, the Grizzlies went to Randolph one-on-one against Ibaka about as often as they looked for Gasol, which is curious. After Randolph drained a contested, off-balance shot in the lane, then missed another, the Griz rightly returned to Gasol. Durant didn’t play him poorly and forced the center into some difficult shots (e.g. a running hook while trotting away from the basket that kissed glass inside of three minutes), but Gasol was still able to get deep inside the paint. For a Grizzlies offense that saw the ball meander around the arc for much of the game, finding Gasol low was a nice salve.

Unless they make a concerted effort to move the ball against Memphis’ lumbering lineups, the Thunder are in serious danger of losing the small vs. big event.

Before Randolph arrived in Memphis, there were nights it seemed like he regarded team basketball as an inconvenience. It’s easy to forget when you watch Randolph do things like get a pass at the elbow then immediately move the ball into Gasol in the low post with a sharp entry pass. That’s not something Randolph would’ve ever been inclined to do, yet it’s a simple part of his nightly routine at this point of his career.

One of the bigger possessions of the first half came early in the second quarter. The ball worked its way over to Z-Bo just above the right elbow. The call was for a handoff to Jerryd Bayless, who swept along the perimeter from the right wing, but Liggins did a nice job denying Bayless on the initial route. Randolph patiently waited, then watched closely as Bayless stopped short, reversed course and wrong-footed Liggins. The instant Bayless got maximum separation from Liggins, Randolph floated a feathery pass, which Bayless snatched out of the air and launched in rhythm for a 20-foot jump shot.

Does Randolph execute the play five years ago with that kind of precision? Not a chance.