Thunder Relies on Lineup Versatility

NBA teams that have cohesive talent are both difficult to defend and to score on. When those talented players’ coach also can press the right buttons to put his players in advantageous positions, the results can be even better.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks knows that he has players with versatile skill sets like Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha, to name a few. His job is to then assemble the appropriate lineups to challenge whichever opponent lays before the Thunder on a given night. Sometimes he needs to play a small lineup, sometimes a big one, another that plays fast and a different one that can slow the pace. Regardless of which style he chooses on a given night, Brooks is confident in his players’ ability to execute.

“We’ve had some success because of our versatility,” Brooks said. “We can throw guys on the floor and they can guard multiple positions. (Durant) can handle the ball and he can play big. He’s a big part of our versatility. Russell can guard multiple positions, Thabo can obviously guard three positions. That’s a thing that we want to continue to build on as the season goes.”

Rolling the ball out onto the floor with a team’s five best players can surely lead to some wins in the NBA, but Brooks’ ability to mix and match can be extremely effective. The Thunder must be able to parry the strengths of opponents – whether it be a high-tempo style or a physical, bruising one. Above all, no matter which style his team plays, Brooks wants it to be focused on the defensive end.

“I think you have to win in this league by playing many ways,” Brooks said. “The one constant has to be defense. If you don’t have a defensive small lineup and a defensive big lineup, you better find one. It’s nice to have them both, and we do… It’s always about getting stops first, but our versatility is always a big part of what we do.”

The Thunder is riding a good stretch of wins over the past week, and those victories have all come because of stout defensive efforts. The Thunder hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 94 points in each of its last five games, and held each team to under 42 percent shooting from the floor in each victory.

“It seems like every game, somebody has stepped up offensively,” Brooks said. “But I thought for the most part, our defense was the catalyst of our success recently… We know tonight’s game is going to be as physical as we played all year.”

Not only is Brooks’ club making its opponent miss from the field, it’s taking away shot opportunities in droves. The Thunder is averaging 8.6 blocks and 8.4 steals per game over the past five games, and that has been a major spark to the overall team defense. With Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Durant’s length patrolling the lane and the quick hands of Sefolosha, Westbrook and Kevin Martin swiping the ball away, the Thunder can continue turning defense into offense.

“Our shot blocking is almost like our steals,” Brooks said. “We’d like to have both. That’s one of the things that we’re striving for, to be a team that can get their hands on balls, because when we get out in transition, we’re pretty good.”

Tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies, that defensive pressure will need to be in full effect. The Thunder and Grizzlies have a burgeoning rivalry that has been growing over the past few years. With the high-low inside game of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph the Grizzlies have a power punch inside that is both a force on the glass but effective in helping teammates score. Brooks and his squad are ready for a battle knowing that tonight may be one of those key times where the Thunder’s ability to play various lineups, particularly a bigger one, will come in handy.

“Memphis is one of the best teams in the league,” Brooks said. “They play as physical as any team in this league. They have that hit-first mentality, they get to the boards, they offensive rebound… They just play with toughness, they defend you. They do all of the things that we like to do also. It’s going to be a physical game. We know that. It always seems to come down to the last couple of minutes of the game, and we’re expecting that tonight.”