Thunder Aiming for Defensive Consistency

When the opposing team in-bounds the ball and starts up-court, the Thunder wants them to see a line of five defenders, in unison, unwilling to give an inch.

Over the past five seasons that the Thunder has developed in all aspects of the game, becoming a team that missed out on the postseason four seasons in a row into one that has become a contender and advanced further in the playoffs in each successive year. While those results are something to be proud of, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ Thunder squad has been more concerned with how it plays each night.

The defensive end of the floor is where the Thunder has made the biggest strides. Going from middle of the pack in defensive field goal percentage to tied for third last year and second place this year, Brooks’ club has gradually turned itself into one of the best defensive teams in the league over the past few years. One man who has seen that improvement from afar and up close is veteran guard Derek Fisher.

“That’s a big part of the evolution and the growth,” Fisher said. “To be able to really lock in defensively on teams regardless of how we’re playing, how the flow of the game is going and how many points we’re scoring, to really just make it hard for people to score.”

On the season, the Thunder allows its opponents to shoot 42.6 percent from the field, while also combining to create the best blocks-plus-steals average in the NBA at 15.9 per game. As the regular season draws to a close, the Thunder has been particularly keen to ramp up the defensive intensity. In fact, the Thunder has allowed its opponents only two quarters of more than 25 points in the past four games, in addition to holding teams at 90 points or under in each game. When the Thunder defends in that way, it creates easier opportunities to score on the offensive end and allows the team to simply make the correct, unselfish play each trip down court.

“I think our identity has to be set in stone that we’re going to defend, we’re going to lock people down, offensively we’ll move the basketball, share the ball, play together,” Fisher said. “That we’re going to overwhelm teams by playing a consistent brand of basketball, limiting our volatility.”

That volatility that Fisher mentions can at times be a characteristic of a young team like the Thunder is. With mature, 24-year-old All-Stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook along with seasoned veterans like Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, the Thunder understands the type of effort that is required every night on the floor, along with the concentration and mental energy necessary to be effective on every play.

“For us always it’s execution on the offensive end and defensively,” Collison said. “I’d like to see our focus and our energy be high and really be into each possession and each game.”

It’s rare, if ever, that the Thunder plays below the standards that have been set internally by the players in the organization over the past five seasons. Every night Brooks’ squad brings it and refuses to give up even when being beaten. That’s why, while having the third best record in the NBA, it has the best point differential, at plus-9.4 points per game. It’s the energy, intensity and focus with which the Thunder plays, not the individual statistics, that drive this team’s success.

“You shouldn’t really measure yourself by percentages or how you’re shooting or whatever,” Fisher said. “It’s really about how you are impacting the game, if you’re making a positive contribution.”

It has certainly been a remarkable stretch for the organization over the past four seasons as the team’s record and the defensive mindset have improved in lockstep. Both with savvy moves to acquire defensive aces like Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha and a commitment from Durant and Westbrook to take on responsibilities in all aspects of the game, the Thunder has made immense strides.

Each player, coach and staff member, just like the team as a whole, is not a finished product, which means that instead of focusing on how far they’ve come, players like Sefolosha look to the future.

“Every day, I realize what we’re doing is good,” Sefolosha said. “There is a lot of good stuff happening. The main focus for us is to keep improving. We don’t really look back. We take it a day at a time and look forward.”

The goal is to use that day-to-day mindset in order to make incremental improvements to everything from jump-shooting to defensive rotations to boxing out and communication. Playing as a unbreakable unit, one that is connected mentally, each and every night is where this Thunder club wants to be when it is all said and done. For a five-time champion like Fisher who has seen it all, consistency is the most essential to winning both in the regular season and in the postseason, which is right around the corner.

“We want to be that team that when you show up to watch us play, you know what you’re going to see,” Fisher said. “I think we can continue to work towards that over the next few weeks.”