To execute a high-pressure trapping scheme in pick-and-roll defense, a team needs two things: athleticism and high basketball IQ. Athleticism without IQ leaves guys desperately out of position and IQ without athleticism puts them in rotations they can’t possibly make or in matchups they can’t handle. The Oklahoma City Thunder have a lot of the former but lack heavily in the latter—among their rotation, perhaps only Paul George, Steven Adams, and Jerami Grant would qualify has high-quality defenders with both athleticism and the necessary IQ to execute the trap the Thunder used in Game 3 against the Utah Jazz.
Throughout Saturday’s game, Oklahoma City threw high traps at Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, and Dante Exum in a relatively drastic change from their normal pick-and-roll defensive scheme. The trapping itself wasn’t the problem on most possessions—Adams and the other Oklahoma City centers was able to get out to the level of the ball and slide with the Jazz’s ball handlers once or twice to force them to give it up—but the rotations on the weakside were downright atrocious most of the night and the Jazz were able to exploit them with open layups or three-pointers consistently. Both scheme and execution were lacking for the Thunder and Rubio in particular was able to carve up the Oklahoma City defense with his vision and passing.
It began on Utah’s first offensive possession; watch how Corey Brewer sprints from the left corner all the way to the top of the key to pressure Rudy Gobert on the short roll, giving up an easy passing lane to Mitchell:
Brewer takes six strides to get to Gobert, even though he never set a solid screen and neither Russell Westbrook nor Adams were compromised in their ability to defend the pick-and-roll without help. The mistake isn’t Brewer’s—he executed the scheme he was given and actually did an admirable job tagging Gobert high up the court and getting back to Mitchell in the corner, even though he got beat by the drive. The problem here is the scheme itself from Oklahoma City’s coaches—heavy rotations just aren’t the Thunder’s specialty and while it can be a very effective way to play the pick-and-roll, they’re not practiced in doing this and have multiple players who are prone to breaking down off the ball. In a more conventional style, those off-ball mistakes aren’t as common, but a high-pressure scheme requires that all five players defend on a string with precise rotations.
Once again, watch how George rotates way out of the corner (off Joe Ingles, of all people!) to get in Derrick Favors’ face on the catch:
I suppose Billy Donovan wants Carmelo Anthony to rotate to the corner to take George’s man, but that’s a lot of unnecessary movement just to get some pressure on Favors 22 feet from the basket. If both George and Anthony simply stay home on their guys, Utah gains no advantage and they have to pull the ball out for another action.
For the third time in the first five minutes of the first quarter, Oklahoma City sends one of their wings on a massive rotation from the corner:
Westbrook and Patrick Patterson jump out at Rubio and force him to pick up his dribble, which is exactly what the Thunder want from their trap. Once he does so, Patterson retreats back to Gobert, job done. Only, it’s not done, because Brewer is flying out of the corner to deter a pass to Gobert, leaving Mitchell wide open. Perhaps it’s Anthony’s job again to get out to Mitchell when Rubio lofts that long cross-court pass to him, but even the best-case scenario there is that Mitchell catches and has an isolation opportunity against Anthony, which won’t end in the Thunder’s favor.
Donovan called timeout immediately after Mitchell’s three made it seven points on three high pick-and-rolls for the Jazz, presumably to nail down some of the finer points of their coverages to everybody involved.
A main issue with a high-pressure scheme like the one Oklahoma City employed in Game 3 is that a single breakdown can have big consequences, even if the offense doesn’t exploit them on an individual play. Watch this possession late in the first quarter, in which the Thunder force an awful stepback three-pointer from Ingles:
That’s good defense, right? A fading three with 1.3 seconds on the shot clock is just about as good a defensive possession as you can have, so let’s put a point in Oklahoma City’s column, yeah?
Not so fast. Watch it again and keep an eye on Westbrook specifically:
Westbrook’s matchup was Exum throughout the play, which means once he gives up the ball, his job is to literally guard anybody except Exum. Once Alex Abrines rotates down to Jonas Jerebko cutting along the baseline, Westbrook has to help the helper and get to Crowder in the corner. If they pass to Exum and he drives into a mass of bodies, so be it. Later in the possession, Exum cuts backdoor and was wide open again due to Westbrook’s inattentiveness. Westbrook essentially gave up a corner three to Jae Crowder and a cutting layup to Exum on the same possession by completely spacing out and not executing any of what Donovan told him to do, despite the fact that Utah didn’t take advantage of either.
Westbrook had a particularly poor game in his help defense responsibilities but had more success on the ball. Utah recognized the Oklahoma City trapping scheme and started to dive into their Thumb series, in which a player will set a down screen for the big man, who runs up to set a ball screen for the point guard. Thumb gets the defensive big man behind the play and makes it much harder to trap. Utah first used it at the end of the first quarter, but Westbrook’s individual defense getting through Favors’ screen completely blew it up:
Ingles sets the down screen on Adams and does a good job deterring him from getting to the level of the ball, but Favors sets a poor screen and Westbrook is able to force the turnover.
As the game wore on, Westbrook was able to remain attentive when he was the first helper in the paint but remained downright bad in any other type of help situation. Watch Westbrook after he’s screened out of the play and Rubio passes it off to the cutting Royce O’Neale:
Once Rubio turns the corner, Westbrook stopped altogether. Never mind that Raymond Felton rotated all the way off Ingles to stop Favors at the rim; Westbrook had no interest in helping him. Once O’Neale threw the pass across the court to Ingles, it was too late—Westbrook has to recognize that just because his man isn’t in position to score, he still has other defensive responsibilities. Rubio was being defended by George after the Thunder rotated, but Westbrook guarded nobody, and it ended up in an open three-pointer.
If Oklahoma City wants to play a trapping scheme, then their weak-side defenders have to be alert and early to rotations every single time. Watch how Grant rotates late and Favors is already at the rim on the roll:
Grant has to meet Favors further up the court, not in the restricted area but near the dotted line, in order to make the catch difficult and ensure that he doesn’t get to the rim without having to put the ball on the floor. However, that’s a tough rotation for Grant to make, since he starts in the corner. It might make more sense for George to rotate instead and have Grant lift slightly to cover both his man in the corner and George’s man on the wing. The low man is generally charged with rotating over to the rolling big man but given how difficult it is for Grant to make that rotation to where the Thunder want him, Oklahoma City decided to change things up slightly, using the high man to rotate later in the quarter.
Utah was ready for that as well—watch how Crowder lifts from the wing to the slot for the shot when Abrines tags Gobert:
Rubio had a ton of success against the Oklahoma City trap—he’s one of the best passers in the league and has the vision to beat even the best rotating defenses, much less whatever it is that the Thunder did on Saturday. Utah’s weak-side movement also improved throughout the game as their shooters relocated along the three-point line much like Crowder did in the above clip.
Overall, a putrid combination of bad scheme and bad execution made it extremely difficult for the Thunder defense in Game 3. Trapping is a key tactic teams use against players like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard—Ricky Rubio is almost the exact opposite of a player you should trap. He’s a phenomenal passer who carries no threat of pulling up for a three-pointer off the pick-and-roll, so why trap him and create openings elsewhere? Oklahoma City had more success playing traditional coverages in the first two games of the series and will hopefully (for their sakes) revert back to those in Game 4 on Monday.