The Oklahoma City Thunder are off to solid start this season with a 6-2 record. While Russell Westbrook, now the team’s sole superstar, has been brilliant as predicted (averaging 31.1 points, 9.5 assists and 8.3 rebounds), it’s the Thunder’s strong defense that deserves hefty praise for this winning record.
Defense was the Thunder’s calling card during the middle portion of Scott Brooks’ coaching tenure, as they ranked fourth in the league in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in 2012-13 and sixth in 2013-14. But in recent years, attention to that side of the ball had plummeted. In 2014-15, their Defensive Rating dropped to 16th and climbed to a 13th ranking last season. With defensive-minded Serge Ibaka traded to the Orlando Magic last summer, the surprising loss of much-improved defender Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors and consistent knocks on Westbrook for his lack of defensive prowess, there was little talk about the Thunder becoming a notable defensive unit again this soon.
However, this group seems to have other plans.
Now a team consisting of many players with considerable length, along with a clear, renewed devotion to playing defense, the Thunder currently rank fourth among all NBA teams in Defensive Rating.
“Everybody’s been pitching in, focusing in every night and defending,” Westbrook said. “Knowing the things we’re supposed to do, and we’ve been doing it.”
“We’ve been pleased with it,” adds veteran Nick Collison. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re following the game plan for the most part. We’re getting in the coverage in pick-and-rolls, we’re in the spots off the ball, we’re guarding the ball pretty well, so just a combination of guys doing their job over and over again.
“We can get better at it, but we’re pleased with how we’re doing so early in the year.”
A close look at certain players on the roster accounts for the defensive improvement. Center Steven Adams is developing into a stronger and stronger low-post defender with each passing season. Forward Andre Roberson is the very definition of a defensive stopper. He’s constantly in opponents’ faces. New Thunder player Victor Oladipo is that two-way guard the team has so needed. And despite those knocks, Westbrook, when locked in, does play very good defense.
Adams stands 7’0 with a wingspan of 7’4.5. Along with newcomers Joffrey Lauvergne at 6’11, Domantas Sabonis at 6’10, and 6’11 Enes Kanter – all between 20-25 years of age – this is a Thunder team packed with length, youth and athleticism.
Adams turned a lot of heads last year in the playoffs, averaging a near double-double (10.1 points, 9.5 rebounds) in 18 postseason games. As expected, he is only getting better, averaging 10.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 2.1 steals this season. He even leads the team in free throw percentage at 94.7 percent, Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares.
“I see a lot of growth,” Roberson said about his teammates. “A lot of carryover from last season’s playoffs. Guys know what it takes to play at that level and what it takes to be a great defensive team. We come in here every day working on it, trying to get better at it. Teach the other guys that just came in what we’re all about. We’re all in this together. We can’t do it without the other guy next to us. We need everybody.”
Roberson, now in his fourth year at Oklahoma City, has a 6’11 wingspan, which enables him to defend multiple positions. He embraces the challenge of guarding some of the best players in the league. Recently, he expounded on his defensive preparation before taking the court on game night.
“I do a lot of scouting,” Roberson said. “Constantly go over who I’m guarding or multiple guys who I’m guarding, and what are their tendencies. I just replay it in my head… positions I’ll be in, whether it’s pick-and-roll or down screens. I run it through my mind, here and there, throughout the day.
“I try to pick out their plays. See what they’re trying to run, who they’re asking for. I look at who I’m guarding, shooter or not, (it) tells me how much I can help off. There’s a lot that goes into play. Try to be in the right position at all times.”
Roberson identified his keys to playing such successful defense.
“It’s a combination of everything,” he said. “Watching film, looking at the scouting sheet. Most of it’s all mental. I do all that, then I try to put myself in the game situation and my thought process is going through it out there. A lot of it comes from my teammates, them talking to me, us talking to them, talking to each other, being in the right position for each other.”
Both Adams and Roberson tend to visibly frustrate opponents they are guarding. They have a knack for getting under players’ skin while keeping their own emotions in check.
“Definitely, they get frustrated all the time if they’re not getting it,” said Roberson. “But you’ve just got to stay resilient, stay constant in whatever it is, staying on them, staying in the right coverage. A lot of that comes from our bigs and our wings in the help-position. We’ve got a lot of length, got a lot of athleticism, we’ve just to exploit it. Go out there and use what we have.”
While Thunder head coach Billy Donovan acknowledges the great defense his team is playing, he sees much improvement yet to be made. In fact, he calls it “a work in progress still.”
“There’s some things I like that we’re doing, but there’s still a lot areas I feel we need to improve,” Donovan said. “Our transition defense has been inconsistent, our defensive rebounding has been inconsistent. There’s been some games where we’ve kind of given up the middle of the floor a little bit too much, but I would say our pick-an-roll coverages continue to improve. It’s just a consistency point of view, trying to do it for longer stretches, having more stamina in doing it. I think our guys have done a good job defensively up until this point in time in terms of trying to put in a system in training camp and now trying to live by that. I think we’re getting better and the guys are working really, really hard to try to improve.”
He recognizes the stats look favorable now, but cautioned against being overly impressed when reviewing the defensive numbers on a sheet.
“I know our numbers look really good,” said Donovan. “I look at it a little bit differently, because I think sometimes when you look at the numbers, you have a tendency not to see shots. Like there are breakdowns defensively that are not going to show up on the stat sheet, because the ball didn’t go in the basket, but clearly it wasn’t good defense. I think sometimes you can look at the numbers and sometimes the numbers can be a little bit misleading.”
Westbrook keeps it simple when asked how the team can maintain this type of attention to defense for the remainder of the season.
“Same thing we’ve been doing all year,” he said. “Defend at a high level every night.”
It’s certainly working well so far. Of course, there are plenty of games left to play, but it’s a promising sign to see the Thunder playing defense at this level so early in the year.
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