Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is showcasing a dangerous new skill in the 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 one, where Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t even the primary ball handler but instead a member of the supporting cast as Jalen Williams attempted to create offense out of spread pick-and-roll:

But in Williams’ desperation, he passes out of a sticky situation, with the ball somehow finding its way toward Gilgeous-Alexander. He attempts to create a shot against Herb Jones, but with a dwindling shot clock and up against a formidable defender, Gilgeous-Alexander shoots a dud.

And on the surface, Gilgeous-Alexander seemed to have fallen short of the standards he set for himself during the regular season over the course of the matchup with the Pelicans. Don’t get me wrong: He was still good, averaging 27.3 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in the four-game sweep, while posting shooting splits of 52.2% on two-point shots, 29.4% on threes, and 72.7% on free throws. But his scoring efficiency took a non-insignificant dip; 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 that regard as they prepare to face a stiffer test in the form of the Dallas Mavericks? Almost assuredly, considering that he’ll be dueling against Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, two better offensive talents than anyone he faced on the Pelicans.

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

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

What often gets lost in isolation possessions is the work that teams and players do beforehand to maximize one-on-one matchups — and the downstream effects it can have on an opposing defensive unit. Gilgeous-Alexander certainly did his part to get as many favorable matchups as he could, which meant finding ways to get his primary defenders off of him as much as possible.

Jones and Naji Marshall were the two assigned to defend Gilgeous-Alexander. The justification for Jones doesn’t need a deep explanation — he’s one of the NBA’s premier perimeter defenders and a favorite to be selected to the All-Defensive First Team. Marshall’s profile as a tall (6’7) and lengthy (7’1 wingspan) wing makes him the ideal understudy for when Jones is off the floor.

The simple solution for getting either one of Jones or Marshall off of Gilgeous-Alexander would be to hunt for favorable matchups — i.e., lesser defenders — and force a switch through setting ball screens, which the Thunder incorporate into their schemes. But while effective in spots, the rote nature of creating mismatches 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 out of Gilgeous-Alexander trying to switch himself out of a difficult matchup. Not as the ball handler, but as someone off of the ball:

Gilgeous-Alexander’s backscreen on Jose Alvarado is of particular note — and is what triggers the switch off of Marshall. The ball gets fed to him immediately, and the prospect of his diminutive teammate having to guard Gilgeous-Alexander on an island prompts Larry Nance Jr. to spring a double.

This triggers 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 closeout, puts pressure on the Pelicans’ defense with a paint touch, and finds Isaiah Joe — one of humanity’s deadliest shooters of the basketball — on the opposite wing.

Gilgeous-Alexander may not have tallied a counting stat — no points, no assists, not even what you could consider a non-counted occurrence such as a hockey assist — but it was his initial screen to force the mismatch that was the catalyst for the three-point shot above, as well as other similar situations against the Pelicans that also may have flown under the radar.

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

One such example: using defenders’ reluctance — outright refusal, at times — to separate themselves from Gilgeous-Alexander, who would then set screens for his teammates. The rationale behind that scenario is that if Gilgeous-Alexander’s defender doesn’t want to detach from him at all costs, screening for a teammate would create either an open jumper from the perimeter or open cutting lanes toward the rim.

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

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

Whenever Gilgeous-Alexander does decide to set a solid ball screen, it serves the purpose of hunting a specific matchup, switching him off of either Jones or Marshall, or both. This is a maneuver smart offensive schemes make use of to dictate matchups — instead of doing the predictable (setting ball screens for your primary), why not have your primary start off the ball and set the ball screens instead?

If your superstar’s willing to set ball screens to have an easier time on the ball, why not expand the possibilities to other types of off-ball screens — back screens, pin-down screens, etc. — that will force the other team to pick from several poisons instead of just one?

This is when things can open up for both the superstar and the coach who utilizes him. Along with the willingness comes the capability to adapt to multiple situations, multiple looks, and multiple schemes from the opponent.

An example being a novel idea such as countering the Pelicans’ zone by having Gilgeous-Alexander be the man in the middle of the zone instead of a typical big man — which means that Nance has to be the one matching up to him when Gilgeous-Alexander decides to draw the ball out toward the perimeter:

These are the nuances that stay veiled under a curtain of ignorance when discussions about Gilgeous-Alexander are made. Both praise and criticism of his game have often focused on what he has done on the ball — his change-of-pace exploits, scoring versatility, and his silky-smooth jumper, as well as his ability to draw fouls and send himself to the line multiple times, to the chagrin of the aesthetics-over-everything crowd. It’s time to recognize what he does off the ball and give it its proper due, because it has arguably been just as effective as his wizardry and brilliance with the rock in his hands.

The Thunder will need every bit of Gilgeous-Alexander’s offensive repertoire — including the off-ball aspects — to overcome the next challenge that Dončić, Irving, and the Mavericks will present. They will most certainly throw different coverages and personnel at him in their efforts to keep him contained. But in both the overt and subtle aspects of his game, Gilgeous-Alexander has proven to be ready for that challenge. And with a superstar willing to do the kind of legwork needed to maximize the team’s offense, the Thunder’s ceiling has become much higher than anyone ever anticipated.

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