Toughness in All Aspects Crucial Against Utah

One sign of maturity as a team is self-awareness. For the Thunder, it is the self-analysis and recognition of areas that need improvement, then the ability to hit the practice floor to address those issues.

Coming into this season, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club aimed to improve in all facets of the game, but highlighted two in particular – its assist to turnover ratio and its defensive rebounding. So far this year the Thunder ranks sixth in assists in the NBA, a major jump from last season.

While the results aren’t quite as dramatic, the Thunder has also made a big improvement in protecting the defensive glass, allowing a near-league-average 11.5 per game while grabbing 73.9 percent of defensive rebounds, tied for seventh best in the NBA. Those improvements come from the mental toughness the Thunder has shown in going to work each day to try to correct areas of need.

“I think that’s one of the things that we do,” Brooks said. “I love to see it as a coach and the players love to see it and our staff loves to see it. Work on things with a purpose and have it transfer over in a game. That’s the biggest enjoyment you get as a staff… We have that shared vision of improving and seeing it on the game floor, that’s the best thing.”

Through practice, shootarounds and film sessions, the Thunder can find and address those segments of the game that it wants to get better in, then transfer it to the game floor. Tonight’s contest at Chesapeake Energy Arena will be another opportunity for the Thunder to put that improvement to the test, as the Utah Jazz comes to town. The physical, aggressive Jazz team led by Head Coach Ty Corbin has earned a reputation as one of the toughest teams in the league, something the Thunder must match.

“It’s always important to lock in against Utah,” Brooks said. “They’re so physical and they love to set great screens and they’re just (about) attack basketball inside the paint. They love to get layups. That’s always been their mentality to knock it inside as much as they can…Our bigs are going to have to do a great job tonight along with our perimeter players helping out on those post catches. They play smash-mouth basketball.”

For Brooks’ club, focus and toughness always starts on the defensive side of the ball, where the Thunder is holding opponents to a third-best 42.7 percent shooting while also boasting the league’s best point differential at plus-9.0 points per game. Defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins and the head of the defense Russell Westbrook are always looked upon by their teammates to get the entire team engaged fully in the defensive effort.

“I think our defense, when we are dialed in and all five guys are engaged and participate, we’re a team that is going to give an offensive team trouble scoring,” Brooks said.

Locking up and taking pride in one-on-one defense is crucial, as are proper pick-and-roll coverage and timely help-side rotations. Against the Jazz, interior post defense will also be critical considering Corbin’s team boasts four back-to-the basket threats in Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Forcing those four to shoot over the top and not get layups will be critical tonight, and as the defensive possession ends, getting proper positioning to grab defensive rebounds will be paramount considering Utah ranks second in the NBA with 13.8 offensive rebounds per game.

“Rebounding is always big for us,” Brooks said. “When we rebound, we usually put ourselves in a good position to win. It’s definitely a premium tonight with all of their bigs. They’re going to get a lot of catches at the post, so we have to really make sure that we block out and get the ball… You have to put a body on these guys because they’re offensive rebounders.”