January was Kevin Durant’s month. He was able to sustain an extraordinary level of play for a stretch of time that has only been seen in a few times before in NBA history. Towards the middle of the month, Durant’s stellar performances transformed the Thunder back into the favorite in the West. They took back the top spot in the conference with a 10 game win streak, and they did it all without Russell Westbrook.
One of the main reasons the Thunder have seen a recent run of success in the absence of Russell Westbrook is the chemistry that has developed between Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has always been a player that needs to be set up to be effective offensively, and if he doesn’t get set up, he can disappear on that side of the ball. Westbrook was always the primary source of Ibaka’s offense in the past, and without him, Ibaka understandably struggled. Without the Thunder’s main ball handler to run pick and rolls with, Ibaka’s production dropped off significantly. Reggie Jackson didn’t show the same type of ability to make his teammates better, and the Thunder struggled as a team because they were essentially without their second and third leading scorers.
In Serge Ibaka’s 12 games without Russell Westbrook this season before January 16th, he averaged 12.2 points on 46.6% shooting from the field. The Thunder as a team were only 7-6 in the 13 games Westbrook missed before that date (Ibaka missed one of those games as well), proving how vital Westbrook was to Ibaka’s level of offensive production and how much their connection impacted the success of the team as a whole.
But something clicked with Scott Brooks, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant on January 16th against the Houston Rockets. Besides the fact that the Thunder defense has been sublime, the decision to run more of the offense through Kevin Durant than ever before has been immensely crucial to the Thunder’s recent stretch of fantastic play. In those first 13 game without Westbrook, Kevin Durant averaged 4.4 assists per game, a solid number, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Thunder atop the Western Conference. Since January 16th? Durant has averaged 7.0 assists per game, primarily due to his increase in connections with Ibaka.
After beating the Rockets in record breaking fashion, the Thunder went on a 10 game win streak – and are 13-2 overall since that game – putting them back on top of the Western Conference. Serge Ibaka has averaged 18.6 points per game on 63.0% shooting in that stretch, while Durant’s assists per game have made a leap of over 50% in that same time. Of Durant’s 98 assists in his last 14 games (he missed one game during the streak), 52 of them came when Ibaka scored a basket. That accounts for 53.1% of his assists.
Serge Ibaka led the league in mid-range shooting percentage last year, and he has been extraordinary as of late from that part of the floor. From a basketball standpoint, the way Durant and Ibaka have connected on the court is pretty easy to identify, and all 52 of those assists are shown in the video below. Watch how many of them come from situations where Ibaka sets a pick on Durant’s defender, and Ibaka either pops out for a jump shot or rolls to the basket for an easy bucket:
The chemistry that has developed between Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka has been primarily seen via pick and rolls or pick and pops. Teams often trap the ball handler when guarding pick and rolls, and when Kevin Durant is the ball handler, teams have an even higher tendency to double because of his absurd scoring abilities. Since Kevin Durant has started initiating the offense through these sets with Ibaka, he has shown off fantastic passing abilities that weren’t being utilized fully in the past. His length gives him the ability to throw over almost all defenses, and Ibaka’s perfect timing when slipping screens is vital to this chemistry. They both seem to make the right decisions at the perfect moments in these scenarios.
Ibaka often doesn’t hold the screen for very long, if at all. He stays there just long enough to allow for his defender to step towards Durant, then he breaks. Even if the intent of the defense isn’t to double Durant, Ibaka’s defender still has to hedge towards him to prevent an easy drive. Sometimes Ibaka cuts to the basket, but his favorite thing to do is move into open space for a mid-range jumper. Durant has little trouble hitting him while doubled, as he has shown an impressive ability to throw both high passes over the double and low bounce passes through it. The connection these two players have discovered recently has been the fundamental reason that the Thunder find themselves atop the Western Conference, despite the absence of their superstar point guard.
They’ve been so good, in fact, that it has led to some narrative creators to say that the Thunder no longer need Russell Westbrook, and that they should trade him. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Just because Kevin Durant has displayed a new part of his game, Russell Westbrook is now expendable? I would be inclined to say that the rest of the NBA should very nervous about Russell’s imminent return. Durant’s newfound ability to set up his teammates with extraordinary efficiency is not going to disappear when Westbrook returns. Westbrook played off the ball in college, and is one of the better point guards in the league at doing so. He hasn’t had many opportunities to display these talents in the past (especially since James Harden left), as no one else on the floor showed an ability to run the Thunder offense for extended periods of time.
Now that Kevin Durant has revealed he has this ability, Westbrook will be able to fit right in. If Scott Brooks transitions Westbrook back into the offense properly – meaning he keeps a large portion of it running through Durant – the Thunder could become better than they’ve ever been before. Look for Russell Westbrook to do a lot more off-the-ball cutting and slashing to the hoop upon his return, and look for Durant to continue to set up his teammates in the way he has throughout the past few weeks.
If all of that happens the way it should, look for the Thunder to take yet another leap in offensive efficiency as they continue to step ever closer to their ultimate goal.