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OKLAHOMA CITY — While playing alongside a superstar can provide cover to an NBA role player, that very arrangement carries its own unique pressures. Coaches and players across the league are constantly scanning for points of weakness in their opponents’ lineup—particularly when every possible resource may be needed to slow the best, most dynamic talents on the floor. Supporting types are pulled to the forefront, in a sense, by the cost-benefit analysis fundamental to modern basketball. The defense will collapse. Rotations will be made and double-teams needed. In those moments, a wide open role player is equally empowered and challenged by schematic neglect.
Thunder guard Andre Roberson knows this dynamic well. For three years Roberson has played alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and for three years he’s largely been left unattended. Defenses don’t guard him so much as use his matchup for either leverage or shelter. Those bold enough will instruct defenders to wander from Roberson completely, as the Warriors have done throughout the Western Conference finals. Others will use Roberson as a means to shield their worst defender on the floor, his limitations acting as a safe haven. The prospect of a Roberson three-pointer—a 35% proposition this season from the corners—is in most cases preferable to Durant or Westbrook getting to their spots on the floor.
This has been the book on Roberson, but as of this year’s playoffs, it appears to be out of date. Both the Warriors and the Spurs have forced Roberson to make plays in the biggest games of their respective seasons. He’s responded in impressive fashion: First by dropping 14 points to push past San Antonio, and more recently by posting a career-best 17 points and 12 rebounds to push Golden State to the brink of elimination. Both of those teams are adept in targeting liabilities. Roberson, to his tremendous credit, proved not to be one at all.
“Whether it's setting screens, cutting, shooting the ball, I'm gonna go out there and make 'em pay,” Roberson said.
He did all of the above and more in Game 4, thanks in part to his intelligent deployment. The most straightforward way for Roberson to buck against Golden State’s zone-like coverage would be to make enough three-pointers to render it ineffective. Roberson took those shots when the opportunity presented itself, but by and large he found other ways to slide into space and make himself available. “There are some things that we can do with him where we can put him in different roles and in different situations and put him in different screening actions and different cutting actions where he can be effective and he can be useful,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. Among those situations: Screening with the intention to slip, much in the same way the Warriors do as a counter to switches.
This play, as with many of Roberson’s scoring possessions, demanded the trust, awareness, and precision of a Thunder ball handler. Getting the ball to Roberson through a wall of three Golden State defenders is much more challenging than the final result would suggest. Credit Westbrook for making it look easy—not to mention placing the ball where Roberson could go straight up to finish.
Roberson also slid behind the defense on this possession, where a high pick-and-roll between Westbrook and Steven Adams triggered Draymond Green—technically Roberson’s defender—into prerotated help:
Golden State successfully contained Westbrook and, after the pass, managed to put bodies between Adams and the rim. Stephen Curry’s decision to then trap Adams in the paint, however, created a chain reaction. Green prioritized guarding Westbrook along the baseline. Andre Iguodala, who was shadowing Durant on the weak side, is pulled up and out of the play by Durant’s movement. This leaves no defender in the vicinity when Roberson loops into a catch on the right block, allowing him to toss in a layup over Green’s desperate contest.
“They're throwing different defenses at us,” Roberson said, “so I move, screen, keep the defense on their heels.”
Because of who Roberson is, these sequences tend to have a backbreaking quality. The Warriors’ entire defensive scheme centers around denying Westbrook and Durant direct access to the basket whenever possible. Roberson was the point of calculated concession—a non-scorer whom Golden State didn’t fear beyond the arc and thought it could fluster at close range. Neither turned out to be the case. Roberson hit a three-pointer in the middle of the Warriors’ last-gasp run in the fourth quarter and scored plenty by maneuvering in ways the defense wouldn’t follow.
Donovan and his staff clearly prepared Roberson well, along with the teammates who sought him out whenever the ball was conspicuously jammed by multiple defenders. Overloading defenses can be suffocating when all goes according to plan. When it doesn’t, the energy that goes into swarming the ball and forcing turnovers tends to fade. Roberson on the move presented a nagging doubt; the Warriors paid the price when they ignored him completely, which led to a much more precarious balance of defensive responsibility. Getting the ball into Roberson’s hands was no longer a successful endpoint.
Some of Roberson’s success is owed to the Thunder’s small-ball turn, which allowed him to operate as a functional big on the floor. Serge Ibaka, the nominal center in these lineups, can effectively work from the perimeter to keep the offense properly spaced. Enter Roberson as a pick-and-roll ‘big’—a quirk that (understandably) baited the Warriors to trap, clearing even more room for the athletic Roberson to attack.
“If they're gonna put a big on me, I'll go and set screens and let Russ attack downhill,” Roberson said. “If they try to trap him, I'm wide open for the roll. I've gotta make a play from there, whether to score or dish it to the corner.”
These are the kinds of plays that Roberson, if largely due to the constraints of his role, hadn’t seemed capable of as recently as a week ago. His credentials as a cutter had been somewhat spotty over the course of his three-year career; now he compromises the coverage of an all-time great team with his understanding of where to be on the floor. The shaky jumper that had encouraged opponents to leave Roberson in the first place has, for the moment, stabilized. Even the idea that Roberson has no role to play in the creative process has been challenged by way of his smart reads.
Roberson remains a limited contributor in many respects. But limitations are fluid—subject to context, matchups, game planning, and evolution. To this the Warriors can attest first-hand, having seen their well-reasoned approach picked apart by the unlikeliest of role players. Roberson simply isn't who Golden State thought he was; he's made himself better by skillfully and selectively making himself available.