Thunder Must Protect Rim with Interior Defense

Swatting shots at the rim can create game changing momentum, but when it comes to interior defense, the Thunder wants to stymie its opponent in a myriad of ways.

When Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team takes the floor each night, there are always five athletes on the floor whose athleticism, quickness, length and toughness are deterrents to attempting shots at the rim. The Thunder, led by Serge Ibaka’s 2.1 blocks per game, ranks ninth currently in the league with 5.4 per contest, but its interior defense is about so much more than just slapping shots away close to the bucket. The team’s defensive rotations, positioning and timing are even more critical to deterring easy shots for opponents.

“The league leaders (in blocks) will probably be in the seven range, but there are 85 shots that go on in the game,” Brooks explained. “As bigs, not only do they want to protect the paint, but they want to get to the spots early so they don’t allow the shots to even happen.”

“We have a great eraser in Serge,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “And we have big guys such as (Kendrick) Perkins, Nick (Collison), Hasheem (Thabeet) and Steven Adams who are doing great things for us down there.”

Ibaka’s role as a rim defender can’t be understated. The number of shots per game that he alters simply by rotating over in helpside defense, making multiple efforts at the rim and being a threatening force in the paint is incalculable. As the Thunder searches for more consistency on the defensive end, however, it will be the way that Ibaka and his colleagues in the post defend within the framework of the rest of the unit that determines full team success.

Being in the right position and as Thunder leaders like to say, “tied on a string”, is an invaluable aspect to the full five-man defensive effort on each possession. Guards are more comfortable on the perimeter if they know exactly where their help is coming from and where his teammates are behind him.

Much of the responsibility in helpside defense is placed on the Thunder’s forwards and centers, who must be cognizant of every playmaker on the floor. Defending the opposing team’s back-to-the-basket players is just one aspect of their responsibilities, which also include getting out to pick-and-pop shooters and preventing guard penetration off of screens.

“We really believe in our defense and what we do defensively,” Brooks said. “Our bigs, they have to wear a lot of hats. They have to be able to guard their post position and they have to be able to guard the weakside. They have to be able to guard pick and roll coverages and that’s one of the hardest things to do because there are so many explosive point guards and wing players, that you have to have two (men) on the ball in pick-and-roll coverages.”

Currently the Thunder is allowing just 41 points in the paint this season, and only 11.1 second chance points, ranking third in the NBA thus far. Erasing shots, preventing them entirely and being in proper position to prevent second shots are all essential parts of a Thunder defensive possession.

The key for Brooks’ club moving forward, however, is to make all of those aspects of the defense come together on each play, for as many possessions as possible in as many games as possible. The execution won’t always be perfect, but if the attitude and effort is correct, the Thunder can keep building consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which makes for games that can be played with much more of an even keel.

“The first possession is just as important as the last possession,” Brooks said. “If you have that mentality, you don’t have the ups and downs of the game.”