OKC was expected to take another step forward after shattering expectations last season, but not like this.
With almost half of the 2023-24 season in the books, the Thunder are in the running for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference despite being the second-youngest team in the league. They have been elite on both ends of the court, ranking in the top 10 in both ends of the court, ranking in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Thunder’s success is driven by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who established himself as a star last season and is now looking like a legitimate MVP candidate. He can hurt teams in a variety of ways on offense, but he does his best work as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. In addition to being a relentless driver and midrange assassin, there’s one thing in particular the Thunder do that makes him so difficult to defend.
You know what that means — to the film room!
This funky Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pick-and-roll explains why the Thunder’s star is such a headache to defend
🎥 The play
On the court for the Thunder are Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren.
Gilgeous-Alexander brings the ball up while Williams, a 6-5 forward, and Holmgren, a 7-1 center, space the floor by spotting up in opposite corners. Giddey, a 6-8 guard, makes his way to the dunker spot and Dort, a 6-3 guard, approaches Gilgeous-Alexander to set a screen.
Dort doesn’t actually make contact with Gilgeous-Alexander’s defender. Instead, he slips the screen.
Knowing how dangerous of a driver Gilgeous-Alexander is, Dort’s defender, Julius Randle, is in a drop. The combination of Randle being in a drop and Josh Hart sticking with Gilgeous-Alexander prevent him from getting to the basket, but it comes at a cost: Dort is unguarded when he pops to the 3-point line.
Dort is having the best 3-point shooting season of his career. His attempts are down compared to the last three years, but he’s connecting on 41.5 percent of his 3-point looks.
Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein clearly aren’t on the same page because they both rotate to Dort out of fear of him getting a wide-open 3.
That means Holmgren is now the one who is wide open.
Brunson closes out in time to contest Holmgren’s shot, but there’s only so much a 6-2 guard can do to disrupt a 7-1 center.
🤔 Why it matters
The Thunder aren’t the only team that runs guard-guard pick-and-rolls, but they do it slightly differently from others. Luka Doncic and LeBron James, for example, often call for a guard to set them a screen in the hopes of forcing a switch, then break the mismatch they’re looking for down methodically.
While Gilgeous-Alexander will do that from time to time, he likes to attack those pick-and-rolls with a bit more speed. The above play is a great example of why it can be so tricky to defend when he does.
First and foremost, parking Holmgren on the 3-point line draws the opposing team’s best rim protector away from the rim. It would be one thing if Holmgren wasn’t a good shooter, but he’s canning 42.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts.
No, that’s not a typo. Holmgren is already one of the best 3-point shooters at the center position.
If that wasn’t enough, putting Giddey in the dunker spot covers his limitations as a shooter and makes Brunson, the shortest player on the court who has a grand total of 34 blocks in his NBA career, the last line of New York’s defense.
Had Randle not been in a drop, Brunson’s only real hope of stopping Gilgeous-Alexander would’ve been taking a charge. He’s good at doing that, but Gilgeous-Alexander rarely commits offensive fouls.
Gilgeous-Alexander has a league-high 837 drives on the season. He’s turned the ball over 26 times in those situations, making for a minuscule turnover rate. He’s also only been whistled for eight offensive fouls, another minuscule amount. He does a nice job of sniffing that stuff out.
The Knicks at least had someone defending the pick-and-roll who is used to being in those positions. A lot of the time, the player defending the screener isn’t used to making the split-second decision of whether to drop, switch, hedge or double because they only know how to defend the other end of the action.
The slightest of hesitations from either of the defenders involved is all Gilgeous-Alexander needs to get a bucket.
Gilgeous-Alexander does a great job of reading the defense, too. If he notices his defender anticipating the screen, he won’t even use it.
Jonathan Kuminga gets a hand in Gilgeous-Alexander’s face on this possession, but pay attention to Kuminga’s footwork:
Kuminga shifts his stance to better position himself to fight over Dort’s screen, but Gilgeous-Alexander rejecting it forces him to quickly readjust by turning 45ish degrees and opening up his hips to the sideline.
It might not look like much, but Gilgeous-Alexander is one of those give-him-an-inch-and-he’ll-take-a-mile type of guys. These guard-guard pick-and-rolls have a way of opening up the space he needs to do what he does best. And if the defense is able to stop him, it usually comes at the cost of someone else being open.
Source : ESPN.com