In remembering these past 2 weeks, and watching the first 6 minutes of the first quarter in the Phoenix game, I’m reminded that, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder are athletically superior to most teams, their defense will be the tell-tale sign whether they reach glorious heights this postseason. A lot of the defensive breakdowns they had last season, are back again this season. The cast of characters is the same, so the fact that improvements have not been made, is really worrisome for their future postseason success.
Two seasons ago, when the Thunder had Ron Adams as an assistant coach, they were near the top of the league in defensive efficiency and used that to propel them to the postseason for the first team since moving to Oklahoma City. Since Adam’s departure after that postseason, there has been a lack of defensive focus that is being masked and hidden by the team’s improved offensive efficiency. When the team struggles offensively, this lack of defensive focus can have adverse effects on the Thunder’s ability to win, especially in the playoffs.
The thing about defensive breakdowns is that they are usually a combination of several defensive breakdowns in one series. It’s not just one play in a possession that causes this. It’s usually a chain reaction of defensive lapses. The first thing the Thunder struggle with is their pick-n-roll defense. The Thunder guards, Russell Westbrook, in particular, have a tendency to go over the pick, instead of fighting through it to stay in front of their man. The problem with this is if the big man doesn’t hedge over a bit, the opposing guard just blows right by them and past their primary defender.
It’s a play like this where you have to know your opponent’s tendencies. If the scenario is guarding a slower guard (i.e. Jason Kidd or Mike Conley), then the Thunder guard can go over the screen as there is no threat of a blow-by. The only threat is if the guard is a competent 3-point shooter. The big man in this situation has to know who he is guarding and decide whether to hedge or stay with his man. In this case, if we are talking about Dirk Nowitzki or Zach Randolph, then it would probably be best for the defending big man to stay on his man.
If the situation is changed to a speedier guard, such as Ty Lawson or Tony Parker, then the big will have to hedge to allow the defending guard a chance to stay in front of his man. The worst thing that can happen in this situation is a switch, where the big is guarding a speedy guard, and the defending guard is on the offensive big. This opens up a ton of options for the offense and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.
The primary goal of the pick-n-roll is to allow movement towards the rim. But, against the Thunder, this is also achieved through dribble penetration. When he was drafted out of UCLA, Russell Westbrook was advertised as a defensive guard, having just won Pac-10 defensive player of the year. But what worked in college (gambling on steals, using other-worldly athleticism to pressure opponents) hasn’t worked quite as well in the NBA where the world’s best basketball players play. A lot of what makes defense work is where you are positioned. If you are not in the correct defensive position, an NBA player will blow by you in a heartbeat.
Where Thabo Sefolosha is more of a technical defender, using his length to make the opposition adjust their play, Westbrook is more an instinctual defender, always trying to go after the steal. But don’t mistake steals for good defense. When you constantly gamble for steals, you put pressure on the rest of the defense to play 4 on 5 defensively. Eventually, the open man will be located, and its usually on the 3-point line or for an easy bucket.
This, then leads to the next defensive issue for the Thunder, which is closing out shooters. After the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and the insertion of Serge Ibaka into the starting lineup last season, the Thunder went from squishy soft interior presence to hardcore interior presence. One would surmise, with that kind of support in the interior (to also include Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed), the Thunder wings would trust their bigs more and not sink in every time the ball gets into the paint. Instead, it’s become commonplace for the entire defense to sag into the paint when a breach occurs which leads to wide open three point shots. Teams like San Antonio and Dallas feast on this and always give the Thunder problems.
Once the defense has been breached and the ball is in the paint, then the advantage goes to the offense. When big men have to move around, it takes them out of their comfort zone. Our big men like to battle until the shot goes up and then box out for a rebound. But if ball is penetrated into the paint, then the bigs have to move around to defend the paint. Even with Ibaka leading the league in blocked shots, this still puts the defense at a disadvantage. If Ibaka leaves his man and whiffs on a blocked shot attempt, then his man is in position for the offensive rebound and put back. Much like steals, blocked shot don’t automatically equate to good defense. But if you are going to have Ibaka play free safety in the paint, then KD needs to slide down on defense and help out on the boards. While it may seem like this has been happening, as evidenced by Durant averaging a career high 7.9 rebounds per game, it also needs to be taken into account that the Thunder have played a lot more small ball with Durant at the 4 this season.
The most important issue with the Thunder’s lack of defensive intensity is their will. A lot of their deficiencies can be overcome by focusing more on the defensive end and working smarter. Ron Adams may have been a great defensive strategist. But even more important was that he held the players accountable for their actions on the defensive end. Once he left, there was a general sense of apathy concerning smart defensive basketball. The Thunder were content with just being good enough defensively and letting their athleticism dictate their defensive schemes. This is especially evident in the 4th quarter of close games. When the Thunder are focused, they can play great defensively and use that close out games.
It’s not all bad though. Due to their athleticism, length, and youth, the Thunder are one of the better teams at defending the fast break. They are constantly stifling transition opportunities for the opposition and cause a good number of turnovers defending the fast break. As we saw in the 4 game stretch from March 25th thru April 1st, where the Thunder played the Heat, Trailblazers, Lakers, and Bulls, the Thunder can put together a string of great defensive games. The question becomes, will that translate to the playoffs?