Westbrook, Durant Lead Pass-Happy Thunder to Brink of Finals

The defining moment of the Western Conference Finals came in the second quarter of Game 4. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr decided to employ a tactic originally known as “Hack-a-Shaq,” adapting it to “Hack-a-Roberson.” For several straight possessions, the Warriors began to foul Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Andre Roberson before he touched the basketball, sending the 56% career free-throw shooter to the charity stripe.

Kerr was attempting two things. First, he was trying to force Thunder coach Billy Donovan to take the defensive-minded Roberson out and put in either Dion Waiters or Randy Foye to guard Warriors star Stephen Curry. This was an acknowledgement of the fact that in Game 4, Curry was unable to shake loose of Roberson and get his shot off cleanly.

Curry’s inability to beat Roberson is an indication of his health, as normally he is able to routinely school elite defenders such as Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler. As I wrote earlier in the playoffs, how Curry’s lingering injuries affect his play will be an important factor determining which team wins the NBA Finals this year, and Curry’s health is the most important headline of the playoffs thus far.

Second, Kerr’s “Hack-a-Roberson” was an attempt to avoid letting the Thunder play their half-court offense. Kerr in effect was acknowledging that the Warriors couldn’t stop the Thunder. And, amazingly, he was right. The Thunder’s half-court offense has transformed overnight from an isolation game that relies on the individual brilliance of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant dribbling around into a motion offense reliant on ball movement and reminiscent of the San Antonio Spurs.

In one Thunder possession, in the span of less than eight seconds the ball had gone from a Westbrook pass to Durant, one dribble, crosscourt to Roberson, into the key to Steven Adams, and finally a kickout pass to Serge Ibaka for a wide open three pointer. Another time, the Warriors were so discombobulated that Adams, the Thunder’s 7-foot center, was able to throw the ball one-handed, like a baseball, from the top of the key to Roberson right underneath the basket for a dunk.

Where this newfound generosity of passing came from, no one is sure. But Donovan and OKC General Manager Sam Presti must be happy with the result. What is certain is that it starts with a generosity from the superstars, Durant and Westbrook, and trickles down to the rest of the team.

The Thunder duo have always put up high assist numbers, averaging over 15 assists between the two of them in the regular season. But many of those came after holding the ball for several seconds or drawing a double team and then passing. Now they seem to have committed to trusting their teammates by giving the ball up early and then relocating until the rest of the Thunder find them with passes that shift the defense.

Perhaps Durant and Westbrook learned a thing or two about unselfish play from Martin Lawrence in Rebound, or maybe it finally clicked that what has made Gregg Popovich’s Spurs so good for so long is their outstanding ball movement. Whatever inspired the change, the Thunder now combine ridiculous athleticism and skill with unselfish, effective basketball to become my new favorite to win the NBA Finals.

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