Thunder Brings Physical Defense to Boston

BOSTON -- One foot closer to the basket or one step closer to a sweet spot on the floor can be the difference between a made and missed shot in the NBA. That is why every night, including tonight against the Boston Celtics, the Thunder wants to be physical on and off the ball to force more misses.

Whether it is getting good position early in the shot clock or taking the right angle to fight through a screen, Thunder defenders aim to gain advantages before their man even gets the ball by being strong both physically and mentally. The trio of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce certainly present challenges, but Thunder center and defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins said that tonight’s contest will come down to more than just those three.

“I think we just have to keep playing physical,” Perkins said. “They have guys on their team like Jason Terry, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass. I think we (need) to take care of their role players on their team and we’ll be alright.”

Avoiding open shots for Terry, Green and Bass, along with Garnett and Pierce, will begin however with Rondo, who leads the league in assists at 13.3. Thunder guards like Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Martin and Eric Maynor will need to key on Rondo’s ability to manipulate the pick-and-roll to find creases in the lane. Preventing Rondo from finding open space in the middle of the court will be critical tonight.

“You have to contain Rondo,” Martin said. “He gets his players into the flow of the offense and gets them easy shots. If you can contain Rondo and not have to help off your man too much, you should be pretty successful. You always have the energizer in Kevin Garnett on the defensive end, so they’re a pretty good team.”

If Rondo does get into the middle, he’ll have Perkins and Serge Ibaka waiting there for him. The former’s defense-first mindset has been contagious ever since he came to Oklahoma City from Boston two seasons ago. Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks relies on Perkins’ intensity, tenacity and mental energy every single night on the court to set the tone for his team on the defensive end.

“He brings a winning mentality, he brings toughness, he brings intangibles that you can’t teach,” Brooks said. “We never look at him as a scoring, rebounds stat guy… What he does is not seen in the stat sheet. He brings the toughness and the physical presence and the knowledge of how to play the game.”

Alongside Perkins in the Thunder starting unit is Sefolosha, another defensive-minded player who Brooks turns to with trust. Sefolosha’s duties on a nightly basis always consist of taking on the challenges of the opposing team’s most prolific guard. On some nights that could be smaller, quicker point guards like Tony Parker, and on other nights it could be bigger, more physical players like Kobe Bryant. Regardless of which type of player he must defend, Sefolosha guards them to the best of his ability and has earned the respect of his teammates.

“He just locks in,” Perkins said. “Thabo is a guy who is just going to play his role. He’s not going to do too much outside of his body. We need him to guard the best wing player. He’s going to guard them and lock up with no problem.”

The Thunder has been able to rely on Sefolosha even more this season, as Brooks has given him minutes with both the starting lineup and second unit. Up from 21.8 last year, Sefolosha is averaging 26.5 minutes per game this season and has been an important part of the Thunder’s schemes offensively and defensively.

When Brooks re-inserts Sefolosha into the game with the second unit late in the first quarter, it gives the Thunder a steadying defensive presence, and also another shooter. In fact, Brooks said he’s earned those extra minutes with his commitment on the defensive end and his shooting, which has been a big plus considering he’s knocking down 51.7 percent of his three pointers so far this year.

“Thabo has had a terrific start,” Brooks said. “There’s a correlation with how we’re playing with how Thabo has been playing also… He’s been a very steady force for me to use. He’s kind of like my utility guy. I can put him with multiple units and I can put him on multiple players, and he’s knocking down shots at a high level.”