Thunder Bigs Protecting the Paint

The Thunder’s momentum was cresting, rising steadily after a Kevin Durant three pointer, when the Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard drove to the basket. Hasheem Thabeet took big steps to rotate over, and packed Lillard’s dunk attempt back to Earth, turning the volume in Chesapeake Energy Arena up another couple of notches.

Thabeet’s big swat came in the midst of a 7-1 run the Thunder used to close out the third quarter in its 106-92 victory over Portland on Friday night, and it was one of 10 blocks the team had on the night. Last year the Thunder led the league in blocked shots with 8.2 per game, with Serge Ibaka’s 3.7 per game pacing the NBA. Through two games Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team put an emphasis on protecting the rim again this season.

“It’s one of the things that we do and we talk about, we have to protect the paint,” Brooks said. “We have to protect the basket. We’ve always been one of the league leaders in shot blocking. Obviously Serge is the volume guy, but we have everybody chipping in one or two a game. Ten is something that doesn’t happen often, but we like it. We have to continue to be a defensive minded team, and blocking shots is a part of it.”

While Ibaka’s prowess for slapping away shots is noted throughout the league, the Thunder has also been getting contributions up and down the roster from Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and naturally the 7-foot-3 Thabeet, who had two blocks in last night’s win. For a man of his size, the Tanzanian big man moved swiftly across the lane to make his presence felt by also altering a number of other shots with the threat of his length.

“We trust each other to go challenge everything at the rim and make them shoot tough shots,” Thabeet said. “They’re going to make some, but at least you challenge. We did a great job of that, the whole team from the paint to the three point line, we were contesting everything. It can really help us… That trust between one another is really there and we’re getting better every day.”

Thabeet had a nice stretch on the offensive end of the floor as well, with a solid 5:15 stretch in the third quarter when he went two-for-two from the field for four points, snagged three rebounds and blocked two shots. Off a Kevin Martin dish, Thabeet finished confidently through contact, then used his physicality to haul in an offensive board and put it back. Both buckets came when the Thunder only led by two points, and the blocks were important to building that much-needed momentum heading into the fourth quarter.

“He’s improving as the confidence continues to build,” Brooks said. That’s what we feel that we’re going to get out of him. We’re going to get some good defensive possessions. A lot of them are not going to end up in the stat sheet. It’s about using his athleticism, his length and his ability to protect the paint… We’re looking at what he brings to our team now and what he can do going forward. We feel it’s going to be pretty important to what we do.”

As the Thunder continues to flesh out what it’s second unit rotation will look like – be it a nine or ten man rotation, Thabeet’s role may change on a night-to-night basis. Against big, physical opponents, the fourth-year man will be vital in the second unit for eight-or-so minute stretches while starting center Kendrick Perkins gets a breather. In other contests against teams that play small Thabeet may see less action, but it is clear that he’s willing to take on whatever responsibilities Brooks and the coaching staff put in front of him.

“I’m just going to keep playing aggressive and do as much as I can to help my team win,” Thabeet said. “It’s been great… As long as you go out there and play hard for your teammates and they’re happy with it, that (is what) really matters.”

Speaking of one of those quick, small-ball teams, the Atlanta Hawks come into town on Sunday night as the Thunder continues its three-game home stand. After trading Joe Johnson this offseason, the Hawks look slightly different along the perimeter, with shooters like Lou Williams and Kyle Korver spacing the floor for athletic bigs like Al Horford and Josh Smith. Tomorrow night’s matchup will be an interesting one as the Thunder meets up with the new-look Hawks.

“It’s definitely a new team, but they’re a fast team,” Brooks said. “A lot of times they play two point guards at the same time with Devin Harris and (Jeff) Teague. They get in transition and try to score early and they still have the All Star center in Horford. He does a good job of rebounding and scoring around the basket. Smith can get hot from the perimeter. He’s a very athletic power forward. It’s a team that we have to really respect.”