Defense the Focus Early in Camp
In those hours when sunlight is just creeping over the horizon, Thunder players make their mark. It’s not what is done in the public eye, but rather the times when no one is watching that are the most telling as players push themselves to improve.
Whether it was driving over to the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center in the middle of the night to get an extra workout or starting their days at the crack of dawn, players like Perry Jones have dedicated themselves to incremental improvement all summer and fall by working hard both individually and against his teammates during off-season sessions and in training camp.
“This summer I was working on my agility and my quickness,” Jones said. “I’ve been working on defense the whole summer. Hopefully I can carve out some minutes and hopefully the coaches see I can help the team in some form or fashion.”
The ability for players to not only develop their individual skills but also get involved in stiff competition with the rest of the squad to elevate the team’s entire level of play is the intricate balance that training camp provides. The coaching staff led by Head Coach Scott Brooks has a plan in place to help guide each player to maximize their potential.
For Jones, last year was spent both with the Thunder and gaining experience with the Tulsa 66ers, an excellent resource the Thunder can employ with young players. Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, Jones hopes that extra playing time will come in handy as he pushes his teammates in practice and finds his role.
“I took it as a learning experience,” Jones said. “I got sent down to the D-League a couple times. I think that really helped me being able to play in the D-League and sitting back and watching how hard guys like Kevin and Russ work and to see how much time it took for them to get to where they are.”
“I know a lot that I didn’t know last year,” Jones continued. “I think that’ll help me a lot going forward in making me a better player.”
When leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook get into the building at 7:40 a.m. for a 10:00 a.m. practice, it lets the entire team that it’s time to get to work. When Head Coach Scott Brooks and the Thunder’s veterans preach defense from the very outset of training camp, it sets the tone for the rest of the season.
After Saturday’s opening practice of the 2013-14 season that saw the Thunder spend over two hours laser-focused on the defensive end of the floor, Brooks and company followed it up on Sunday with a morning session that reinforced those principles.
“The focus today was defensive intensity,” Brooks said. “We wanted to make sure we came back after the first day really challenging ourselves and pushing each other as much as we can. The physicality was good throughout the day. The guys came back with great energy and great focus, paying attention to the details.”
The Thunder’s core defensive tenets are based around team-wide concepts like communication and trust that help-side defenders will be in place to stop opponents from getting to the basket. When all five players in the defense are tied on a string, moving as one flowing unit, the Thunder can make attacking the paint or finding open looks extremely difficult.
It all starts, however, by each man keeping a wide stance, their hands up and their feet moving to stay in front of their man. Point guards Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson lead the defense from the front while anchors of the defense like Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka communicate while patrolling the paint.
“It’s a combination,” Brooks said. “It starts with you taking pride in guarding your man and then we also talk about the four guys on the backside helping out if needed. We always want to focus on the individual defense. That’s just pride, determination and what you have in your belly to get a stop. We have a team full of guys like that.”
“Basically being nitty-gritty and not letting your guy get by you,” Jackson explained. “Just try to contain your own man and take pride in one-on-one defense.”
Drills throughout practice help players hone their individual skills and understand the basic shell that helps the Thunder defend all five opponents at once. In order to keep players engaged throughout the intensive practices, the coaching staff also mixes in some live competition. With three-on-three and four-on-four action, Thunder players can get after one another and compete with high energy, which breeds camaraderie and builds bonds early in camp.
“It’s fun to get after it,” Jackson said.
Throughout both drills and live sessions, though, the focus early in camp is to ensure that every member of the squad understands and lives by the team’s defense-first identity. Last season the Thunder finished second in the NBA in field goal percentage defense and led the league in combined blocks and steals per game. Entering this year, veterans like Perkins know that it will be imperative to re-solidify the mantra that encourages taking pride and displaying determination on the defensive end.
“We hang our hats on being a defensive team, because great defense is going to translate to good offense,” Perkins said. “It’s very important because that way you can set the tone for all the young guys and newcomers to let them know.”