Even though the Oklahoma City Thunder lead the Los Angeles Clippers 2-1, Los Angeles is far from out of this series. After an outstanding performance in Game 1 and a disappointing letdown in Game 3, things could be better. But with the way the Clippers have been playing in this series, it will only take a small break to change their fortunes.
It wouldn't have been much of a surprise if the Clippers had pulled out both games in Los Angeles. The teams are relatively even talent-wise, and the resulting boost from the home crowd could have easily been enough to push the Clippers to a 3-1 lead.
Of course, that didn't happen. But the Clippers should still feel confident, simply because their offense continues to fire on all cylinders. Their running of continuous pick-and-rolls has flustered the OKC defense, and with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan constantly involved in the on-ball action, the Thunder have their hands full.
The key, as with any pick-and-roll play, is decision-making. With Chris Paul, the Clippers arguably have the strongest on-ball decision-maker in the league. With the ability to penetrate, pass and shoot, the defense can do nothing but pick its poison.
The other half of the action, involving two of the most athletic bigs in the league in Griffin and Jordan, causes problems as well. Both are explosive finishers at the rim, adding the extra component of the lob play. But Griffin in particular is a wonderful passer, always capable of kicking out to shooters or finding a cutter.
Put simply, there's no good pick-and-roll defense against Los Angeles. If the defense switches, there's a mismatch both on Paul and Griffin. Since both are elite NBA scorers, they can easily take advantage. If the defense chooses another route, it will invariably involve scrambling and rotating of some kind. Paul is so good, however, that he's able to take advantage of these momentary opportunities when the defense is out of sorts.
Take a look at these pick-and-rolls from the beginning of Game 2, when the Clippers got two open three-point shots.
When Griffin goes to set the initial pick, Russell Westbrook does an excellent job hounding Paul and making it difficult for Griffin to get a piece of him. Griffin continues to re-screen, and Paul keeps twisting around Griffin. Finally, Griffin is able to make contact.
Serge Ibaka is in a "drop," in which he backpedals to the free-throw line to guard both Griffin and Paul as they barrel down the lane. He's merely a stopgap until Westbrook can recover, and everyone is back on his original man.
Part of the "drop" pick-and-roll coverage involves the weak-side defense, with a defender pinching into the middle to help protect while Westbrook is fighting to get back to Paul.
In this case, the help defender is Thabo Sefolosha, who is guarding J.J. Redick in the corner. But as Paul comes off the pick, he's able to sneak a pocket pass to Blake Griffin as he begins to roll.
For most big men, it's extremely difficult to gather the ball, assess the defense and instantaneously make the right decision. Griffin, however, recognizes that Sefolosha is pinching in and immediately swings the ball to Redick in the corner.
The reason why the defense is willing to abandon a corner shooter is simple: If the pass to the big on the roll is inaccurate or the big is slow in his decision-making, there's enough time to recover. Therefore, he's able to help protect the paint without actually giving up an open shot to a shooter.
While an underrated part of Griffin's game is certainly his passing, it's actually his quick decision-making that's more valuable. In this case, he uses the threat of himself finishing at the rim to suck in the defense. He then uses this advantage to quickly swing the ball, giving his teammate and a great three-point shooter in Redick an open shot (which he nails).
Paul's decision-making is better known, but it's his nuance to set up great decisions that actually makes the difference. On this play later in the first quarter, we have a similar situation: a Griffin-Paul pick-and-roll, with the defense squeezing the paint to help.
This time it's Kevin Durant leaving Matt Barnes on the weak-side wing. Unlike the previous play, there's much less margin for offensive error. Whereas Sefolosha had to travel quite a distance to get back to Redick, Durant is actually quite close to both the developing pick-and-roll action and Barnes.
As the pick happens, Griffin doesn't actually get a piece of Westbrook, yet it's still enough to get Paul going downhill with Westbrook in a slightly disadvantageous position.
With Paul able to head toward the basket, Durant properly rotates to the paint to get in the way. Most players would simply make the pass outside once they sense the help defense coming; Paul, however, keeps driving with no intent of scoring.
He actually dips his left shoulder toward the middle before hitting Barnes with a pass. This forces Durant to take an extra step toward the middle as well, making it that much more difficult to contest the subsequent shot.
Even though Durant is very long and capable of contesting shots from a farther position than most players, it's still not enough. Barnes drills the three.
The pick-and-roll is the lifeblood of most offenses in the NBA. Scouting is so superb that most teams know opponent sets. Offense, therefore, becomes a matter of execution and skill. In the Clippers' case, they simply have superior skill.
Griffin was an MVP candidate this season, and Chris Paul is regularly considered among the top point guards in the league. Right now, Oklahoma City cannot stop this pick-and-roll combination. Even though it's currently leading the series, it'll have to solidify its defense for its success to continue.