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Oklahoma City Thunder: Different game, different passing

by Berry Tramel Modified: April 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm •  Published: March 4, 2013

One of the best plays of the Thunder season occurred Sunday, and then it almost immediately was lost in the glare of Serge Ibaka’s cheap shot on Blake Griffin. For the Monday Oklahoman, I wrote about Ibaka’s low-blow strike on Griffin. You can read that column here.

But before the Clippers’ seven-point possession, the Thunder scored to take a 99-93 lead with 2:23 left. And here’s how the Thunder did it. As he crossed halfcourt, Russell Westbrook tossed the ball to Kevin Durant on the wing. Durant flipped the ball to Thabo Sefolosha back out front. Thabo passed to Westbrook. Westbrook passed back to Durant. Durant threw the ball to Thabo on the deep right wing. Thabo zipped a pass to Kendrick Perkins on the baseline. As the Clippers’ zone defense collapsed on Perk, he fired a pass to Ibaka under the basket for an easy dunk.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9), of the Republic of Congo, dunks as Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes (22) defends in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 3, 2013. The Thunder won 108-104. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9), of the Republic of Congo, dunks as Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes (22) defends in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 3, 2013. The Thunder won 108-104. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Seven passes. A bunch of hockey assists, which the Thunder likes to talk about although it doesn’t much embrace the concept.

How amazing was the possession? On Friday night in Denver, the Thunder made six passes — in the final eight minutes of the game. Six passes total. No. I’m not kidding.

I charted every Thunder possession of the fourth quarter in OKC’s 105-103 loss at Denver on Friday night. And it was a monument to hero ball, the NBA’s term for stars going one-on-one. Coaches, Scotty Brooks among them, preach ball movement, but that doesn’t mean we see the result on the court. Not counting inbound passes or passes in the backcourt, the Thunder made six passes in their final 17 possessions. Not six assists. Six passes. Total.

Durant re-entered the Denver game with 9:44 left in the fourth quarter. On the first OKC possession, backup point guard Reggie Jackson made the only pass — for an assist on a Durant jumper. On the next possession, the Thunder made three passes, leading to a missed Thabo Sefolosha drive. Then Russell Westbrook replaced Jackson, and on the ensuing possession, the Thunder made three passes, leading to Kevin Martin’s 3-pointer that drew OKC within 89-83.

And then the Thunder resorted exclusively to one-on-one basketball. On 11 of the last 17 OKC possessions, the player who dribbled across court never passed it — Westbrook eight times, Durant three. Now, some of those were in transition — Westbrook, primarily, pushing the tempo. On three of Westbrook’s eight hero possessions, he was fouled and shot foul shots, not counting a three-point play opportunity. On the others, Westbrook shot 2-of-5 — he made a driving basket, then scored in transition. He missed a 3-pointer, a jumper and a drive.

Durant’s three zero-pass possessions, one resulted in two foul shots, one in a missed jumper and one in the tying drive in the final 20 seconds.

The Thunder had six one-pass possessions, which hardly were better in terms of ball and/or player movement. Westbrook took a virtual handoff from Kevin Martin, then backed down and made a turnaround jumper. Westbrook penetrated and kicked the ball to Sefolosha, who nailed a 3-pointer. Westbrook passed to Ibaka, who was fouled and made two foul shots. The last three were late in the game, all virtual handoffs from Westbrook to Durant, who missed a deep 2-pointer on the first, was fouled and made two foul shots on the second and missed a jumper on the third.

So there it was: 17 possessions in 81/2 minutes, virtually all of them using hero ball. The Thunder scored 20 points on those 17 possessions, made five of 11 shots and got 13 foul shots. Actually solid offensive production. But it was all a struggle, and Westbrook and Durant dominated the ball. In the last 41/2 minutes, in fact, only Westbrook and Durant so much as touched the ball in the frontcourt. Amazing. Simply amazing.

Sunday, the ball movement was much better. Maybe Scotty Brooks laid down the law. Several times, Westbrook passed the ball quickly after crossing midcourt and was given the ball right back. Maybe Foreman Scotty told his point guard, at least one pass is mandatory. Of course, the Clippers went to that zone in the fourth quarter, and that skews the study somewhat. But it’s still interesting. The Thunder clearly was more interested in passing.

In the fourth quarter, the Thunder had 24 possessions. Only five were passless; one of those was Westbrook’s breakaway dunk and another was in the final second, when Durant was fouled. So really, only three no-pass possessions. And there were only three one-pass possessions.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Thunder slumped and went eight straight possessions without scoring. That zone totally stymied OKC. But the Thunder found its rhythm. A hidden gem in this victory — the Thunder scored on its final nine possessions. That’s remarkable efficiency.  The first two of those possessions resulted in foul shots, plus Durant’s final foul shots. But that means six straight possessions resulting in a Thunder field goal:

* Two passes, then Kevin Martin drives through the zone for a lay-in and a 95-90 OKC lead;

* Zero passes, courtesy of Westbrook’s steal and breakaway dunk for a 97-90 lead;

* Seven passes, resulting in the Ibaka dunk that made it 97-90;

* Zero passes, with Westbrook’s drive through the Clippers giving OKC a 101-100 lead;

* Three passes, the final a nifty Westbrook dish to Ibaka for a 3-point play and a 104-100 lead;

* Five passes, then Westbrook feigning his way past Lamar Odom to the baseline for an open 14-footer and a 106-102 lead.

Lots of good offense there, in a variety of ways. And much different than Friday night, when in the fourth quarter the Thunder passed fewer times than Barry Switzer’s wishbone.





by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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