Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Showcases Dangerous New Skill in NBA Playoffs

Your perception of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans may have been colored by a possession like this, where Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t even the main ball handler but rather a member of the team. supporting cast as Jalen Williams attempted to create offense from the spread pick-and-roll:

But in Williams’ desperation he gets out of a sticky situation, with the ball somehow finding its way to Gilgeous-Alexander. He tries to create a shot against Herb Jones, but with the shot clock dwindling and facing a formidable defender, Gilgeous-Alexander misses.

And on the surface, Gilgeous-Alexander appeared to have fallen short of the standards he set for himself during the regular season during the game against the Pelicans. Make no mistake: he was still good, averaging 27.3 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists over the four games, while posting shooting splits of 52.2% on two-pointers, 29.4% on threes and 72.7%. on free throws. But his the efficiency of the rating has seen a significant decline; from a True Shooting percentage of 63.6% during the regular season to 55.3% against the Pelicans.

Will Gilgeous-Alexander need to be better in this regard as they prepare to face a stiffer test in the form of the Dallas Mavericks? That’s almost assured, considering he’ll be going up against Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, two better offensive talents than everyone he faced with the Pelicans.

But his first-round stats don’t necessarily tell the whole story of Gilgeous-Alexander’s offensive impact.

Although his deployment over those four games pretty much maintained the status quo of him being the Thunder’s primary source of points, his usage rate was 33.6% through four games, which isn’t far off from his regular season mark of 32.8% (third in the ranking). league behind Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo) – Gilgeous-Alexander did more than just dive headfirst into ball strikes and direct isolations.

What often gets lost in isolated possessions is the work teams and players do beforehand to maximize one-on-one matchups – and the downstream effects that can have on an opposing defensive unit. Gilgeous-Alexander certainly did his part to get as many favorable matchups as possible, which meant finding ways to keep his key defenders away as much as possible.

Jones and Naji Marshall were both tasked with defending Gilgeous-Alexander. Jones’ rationale doesn’t need an in-depth explanation: He’s one of the premier perimeter defenders in the NBA and one of the favorites to be selected to the defensive first team. Marshall’s profile as a tall (6’7) and rangy (7’1 wingspan) wing makes him the ideal backup when Jones is off the floor.

The simple solution to eliminating Gilgeous-Alexander’s Jones or Marshall would be to look for favorable matchups — that is, lesser defenders — and force a change by setting ball screens, which the Thunder incorporate into their plans. But while effective in places, the routine nature of creating lags in this way can make the strategy both predictable and somewhat boring.

But the possession below was neither predictable nor boring – and yet it was born from Gilgeous-Alexander’s attempt to extricate himself from a difficult matchup. Not as a ball handler, but as a person out of the ball:

Gilgeous-Alexander’s back screen on Jose Alvarado is particularly notable – and it’s what triggers Marshall’s save. The ball is immediately passed to him, and the prospect of his little teammate having to guard Gilgeous-Alexander on an island inspires Larry Nance Jr. to make a double.

This starts the swing-swing sequence: a pass to Jaylin Williams on the wing, followed by another swing to Cason Wallace in the corner. Wallace attacks the fence, puts pressure on the Pelicans defense with a splash in the paint, and finds Isaiah Joe – one of mankind’s deadliest basketball shooters – on the opposite wing.

Gilgeous-Alexander may not have counted any stats – no points, no assists, not even what you might consider an uncounted event like an assist in hockey – but this is his initial screen for forcing the shift which was the catalyst of the match. three-point shot above, as well as other similar situations against the Pelicans that could have also gone unnoticed.

Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t get enough credit for doing the blue-collar work away from the ball that allows him to generate effective offense, both for himself and his teammates. His off-ball contributions shouldn’t be confused with, say, the volume of off-ball work that Steph Curry has compiled over the past decade. But there are similarities inspired by the greatest guard of this era.

An example: using the defenders’ reluctance – sometimes their outright refusal – to separate from Gilgeous-Alexander, who was then setting screens for his teammates. The reason behind this scenario is that if Gilgeous-Alexander’s defender is unwilling to break away from him at all costs, detecting a teammate would either create an open jumper from the perimeter or open cutting lanes to the rim.

Examples of the first against the Pelicans involved Chet Holmgren, who has the advantage of being a five with a virtually unblockable jumper. Whenever Gilgeous-Alexander found himself near a Holmgren handling the ball in transition, he automatically knew what to do:

Whenever Gilgeous-Alexander sets ball screens, he usually does one of two things. He can “ghost” it – that is, instead of creating an outright screen, he fakes it and runs away into open space on the perimeter. Again, going back to Gilgeous-Alexander’s aforementioned reluctance to break away, this can create confusion at the point of attack, which generates an open driving lane for his ball-handling teammate (often Jalen Williams) :

Every time Gilgeous-Alexander decides to create a solid ball screen, it serves to look for a specific matchup, turning it off either Jones or Marshall, or both. This is a move that smart offensive schemes use to dictate matchups – instead of doing the predictable (setting ball screens for your primary), why not have your primary start the ball and to set ball screens instead?

If your superstar wants to set up ball screens to make it easier on the ball, why not expand the possibilities to other types of off-ball screens – back screens, pin screens, etc. – which will force the other team to choose. several poisons instead of just one?

This is when things can open up for both the superstar and the coach using him. This will is accompanied by the ability to adapt to multiple situations, multiple perspectives and multiple stratagems of the adversary.

An example being a novel idea such as countering the Pelicans’ zone by making Gilgeous-Alexander the man in the middle of the zone instead of a typical big man – meaning Nance has to be the one to match him when Gilgeous- Alexandre decides to shoot the ball towards the perimeter:

These are the nuances that remain veiled under a curtain of ignorance when discussing Gilgeous-Alexander. Praise and criticism of his game often focused on what he did with the ball – his change-of-pace exploits, his scoring versatility and silky jumper, as well as his ability to foul and s ‘send towards the goal. waiting in line several times, much to the dismay of the crowd who prioritize aesthetics. It’s time to recognize what he does off the ball and pay tribute to him., because that was arguably just as effective as his magic and genius with the rock in his hands.

The Thunder will need Gilgeous-Alexander’s entire offensive repertoire – including off-ball aspects – to meet the next challenge presented by Dončić, Irving and the Mavericks. They will most likely throw different blankets and staff at him in their efforts to keep him contained. But in both overt and subtle aspects of his game, Gilgeous-Alexander has shown himself ready to take on this challenge. And with a superstar willing to do the kind of work necessary to maximize the team’s offense, the Thunder’s ceiling has become much higher than anyone ever imagined.

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