With the NBA Finals featuring two of the league’s eight best offenses, I rang up Grizzlies guard Tony Allen for perspective on how to slow down some of these players. Allen was named All-Defensive first team this season, and as a versatile perimeter stopper in Boston and now Memphis, he has a ton of experience guarding every big-name perimeter player in this series in the regular season and playoffs.
Allen, an NBA junkie, was especially animated when it came to the best way to defend Oklahoma City’s new go-to play in crunch time: Russell Westbrook setting a pin-down screen for Kevin Durant on the right block as James Harden holds the ball on the left wing, ready to hit Durant with a pass near the foul line. The Thunder have never leaned on it this much, and it devastated the Spurs down the stretch of both Game 4 and Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. In Game 4, as Sebastian Pruiti of Grantland expertly documents here, the play resulted in heaps of points for Durant, including this shot that is sort of the ideal first-option outcome:
The play presents defenders with bad choices. Should you switch? That’s the easy way out, but it would leave Durant here with an opportunity to catch and work against the much smaller Tony Parker. Dwyane Wade or Mario Chalmers will fill that role in this series, and while both are a bit bigger than Parker, neither can bother Durant’s jump shot. The one wild-card here: If James guards Westbrook in crunch-time and Battier guards Durant, the two could switch without much punishment.
Another possibility: Perhaps Durant’s defender could veer into the paint, around the screen and meet Durant at the foul line — “shooting the gap” in NBA lingo. Allen says that’s a no-go: “You can’t shoot the gap,” Allen said. “You just don’t.” Why? Because Durant will read that early and simply fade out to the baseline for an open jump shot.Another option the Spurs tried: Have Parker slide away from Westbrook and into the potential passing lane to Durant, denying the pass while Durant’s man battles through the pick. Allen practically screamed his opposition to this tactic: “No! Don’t help! You don’t help there!”
Why not? Because the Thunder stars are refining new skills each day, and one such skill is Westbrook’s noticing that sort of help early and immediately cutting free to the basket, before a big man can react in the paint:
So what exactly should the Heat do when confronted with this play? Just “play hard” and hope for the best? Allen has a suggestion: Whomever is guarding Westbrook should “open up” his stance and basically get out of the way of the Westbrook/Durant pick. Don’t help, don’t switch and don’t clutter things up; just slide between Westbrook and the rim, leaving Durant’s defender to battle through the pick. The guard taking himself out of the way like this might also open up a small seam that Durant’s defender can slide through. But if not, Allen says it’s on Durant’s man to do whatever it takes to battle through or around that pick.
The Spurs probably came closest to following the Allen Doctrine on this Game 6 possession, with Parker opening up his stance and Stephen Jackson climbing on Durant’s back on the right block:
Allen has no hard-and-fast strategy for the defender in Jackson’s position here — likely LeBron James or Shane Battier for the entirety of the Finals. The back-climbing technique Jackson uses here could work. Allen also advises “staying small,” or remaining in a crouched defensive stance, one that primes a player to pounce quickly through small spaces.
The downside obviously is that Durant can come off the pick with a head of steam and his defender trailing him, opening up the possibility for a quick jumper or drive. But if the Heat follow Allen’s rule, he says Westbrook’s man will be lingering in the paint to deter that drive, and that a Heat big man must be ready to come from the weak side to contest any shot at the rim. That’s what Tim Duncan (in the paint on the left side) is ready to do in the above photo.
Defending this play perfectly guarantees nothing, of course. “You just gotta pick your poison,” Allen said. “Durant is playing phenomenal right now.” He also warns that the Thunder have yet to unveil another counter here: Durant running hard at Westbrook’s pick, only to suddenly reverse his momentum and cut backdoor for an alley-oop.
Some other thoughts from one of the league’s best defenders:
• Allen had a lot of praise for the growing diversity of James’ game. The book on defending the James/Wade pick-and-roll, with James as the screener, has always been either to switch defenders or have LeBron’s defender jump out briefly onto Wade to cut him off while Wade’s defender ducks under the screen.
Allen says those are less appealing options now. James can post up smaller players on switches, and if James’ defender leaves him even for a second to help on Wade, James can either cut to the basket or flare out for an open jumper.
“He’s hitting those 15-footers like they’re warm-ups now,” Allen said. “He’s just squaring up beautifully and hitting them. And he can post you more now. He can hit you with backdoor cuts. He’s got everything in his game now. People try to bash him, but he’s put his team in this position and he’s putting up video-game numbers.”
• As for the Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll up top, Allen says Westbrook’s improved jumper has rendered the classic strategy against it more risky. Teams often have Westbrook’s defender go way under the Durant pick while Durant’s guy sticks to the scoring champion, because leaving him even for a second is too dangerous, given Durant’s pinpoint jumper. “We tried that in Game 7 last season [in the Thunder-Grizzlies second-round series], and Westbrook hit like eight jumpers in a row,” Allen said.
• He recommended that the Heat trap Durant aggressively when he pops up off a screen from one of his big men on the wing. Miami did that in the regular season, and because the big man guarding the screener is responsible for that double team, that strategy will leave the screener open rolling to the rim. Allen says you have to live with that. “You gotta make Durant pass to [Serge] Ibaka and Perk [Kendrick Perkins],” Allen said. “Again, pick your poison.”
Several other players I talked to, including Jerry Stackhouse, who was on the Heat for part of last season, suggested that a well-timed shove as Durant curls around the screen can also help. Officials often can’t see such a nudge amid the crowd of players, Stackhouse said, and they might mistake some shove-induced momentum shift as Durant’s natural acceleration around the pick.
• Lastly, you can count Allen among those regretting the decline in old-school post play around the league: “Perk is probably the only real post man in this series, and they don’t really want him to do that stuff,” Allen said. “He’s a defender. Chris Bosh? He’s a jump shooter as opposed to a real banger. You look at those older teams, and you had Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, and those guys would really bang you on the block. Even Bill Cartwright would get the ball for the Bulls sometimes down there! You could never have told those guys that one day we’d get a Finals that would be a straight-up perimeter game.”