Thunder Defense Must be Tied on a String

LOS ANGELES – On the road in difficult environments, the Thunder relies on every man on the roster to get through each challenge.

Tonight at the Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Thunder will need the services of its entire rotation to contend with the depth and offensive potency of the Chris Paul-led squad. Team leaders on Head Coach Scott Brooks’ squad like Nick Collison, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook help get the Thunder mentally prepared for each contest. Today at shoot-around in Santa Monica, it was no different as the team locked in on the strengths and weaknesses of tonight’s foe.

“They have a lot of talent,” Collison said. “They’re very deep. Pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul and then their bigs rolling is very tough to deal with. They’re good in transition. I think for us, we want to try to cut out easy baskets in transition and then on rolls and dives to the basket, we want to try to make them hit jump shots.”

Consistent with the growing trend in the NBA as a whole, the Thunder will be chiefly concerned with the Clippers’ pick-and-roll on offense. With Paul as the ball-handler manipulating each pick to carve out new angles for passes and drives, the Clippers seemingly find endless combinations of ways to attack the paint. With Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan diving to the basket and shooters set up on the wings, the Thunder must be on the same page as an entire unit on defense.

“We know we all have to be on a string,” Durant said. “The point guards and the bigs that are guarding the ball all have to be on the same page. We in the back have to be safeties and telling those guys where to go and make sure we’re helping each other out. If we do that we’ll be fine.”

The main focus of attention in the pick-and-roll seems to be placed on the ball-handler and the screener, along with the two defenders marking them. However, the key to a great defensive possession against the pick-and-roll is what the other six men on the floor are doing. Depending on the variation of the pick-and-roll which is determined by which positions the two offensive players are occupying on the floor, the Thunder defense must react in different ways. Most important of all, however, is the communication that is necessary among all five defenders in order to be effective presence.

“You need all five guys in the pick-and-roll,” Collison said. “We need to be good at the point of the screen. We need to be able to meet the roller early, especially with this team because they’ll just take off if you get there too late. Then you have to be able to close out on the weak-side if they swing it. Pick-and-roll defense is always a five man job, but it’ll especially be tested against the Clippers.”

Calling out screens, rotating over in help-side defense and then recovery back to assignments properly will all be critical aspects of the Thunder’s defense on each and every possession. It’s not just that the Clippers are potent in the pick-and-roll, they are simply one of the best teams in the league this season. At 32-10 the Clippers are just half a game behind the Thunder for the NBA’s best record. It will be a tough, hard-fought contest just like it was in the Thunder’s overtime victory in Oklahoma City against the Clippers in November.

“The coaches tell us how physical it’s going to be,” Durant said. “This team is playing very well. They have so many good pieces around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Those guys play well together. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’re looking forward to it.”

Most of the focus when it comes to the Clippers revolves around Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but the second unit led by Jamal Crawford is one of the best in the league. By playing a different style and going with a smaller, perimeter-oriented approach, the Clippers’ bench is extremely effective and provides opponents with a difficult change-up to deal with mid-game. As a result, the Thunder’s bench must be prepared for the challenge and the entire team ready to play a full four quarters of quality basketball.

“They’re just one of the most talented teams one through ten in the league,” Collison said. “We’ll have to be ready to play. Those really deep teams, you have to be able to play the full 48 because they’ll put a run on you… You have to count on everybody to play well.”