Tough Thunder Faces Jazz Tonight

SALT LAKE CITY – A good boxer has a variety of punches he can throw – jabs, uppercuts and all kinds of combinations. It’s important for an NBA team to be just as multiple and versatile, but above all in both sports, mental and physical toughness reigns supreme.

Tonight on the road against the Utah Jazz, the Thunder will be looking to bounce back with a solid effort against a hungry team that has been playing well and is clawing for a Playoff spot. While the Thunder loves to get out and run in the open court, it also knows it can play well in the half-court and use its defense to make an impact on the game as well in this first game of a three-game West Coast road swing. Leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook help get the team primed for what will be necessary to get a win.

“We just have to come out here and play with a lot of energy,” Durant said. “Passing the basketball, rebounding and playing solid defense is what we want to start off this road trip doing. If we do that, we’ll put ourselves in a good position to win.”

In facing the Jazz, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ Thunder squad knows the type of battle presented before it. Durant said that while most of the league is moving to a “small ball” approach, the Jazz go with a traditional lineup of two big men, with reserves to follow. As a result, the Thunder’s front line of Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet will be tested tonight, but it will be up to the entire squad to bring the necessary physicality to be successful.

“It’s always one of the number one keys that we talk about with our team,” Brooks said. “We have to play with toughness. We’ve done not a good job, but a great job all year long of playing with that toughness on both ends of the floor.”

While much of that physicality will be needed on the defensive end, and particularly on the glass on box outs, the Thunder also understands that being tough on the offensive end is essential too. Strong screens, well-timed and precise cuts and strength when attacking the basket are staples of the Thunder’s offense, but its ball-handling and passing has made an improvement as well.

Crisp passes, tight dribbling and not playing in a crowd are all ways in which the Thunder has improved by a full three assists this season while turning the ball over one fewer time a game compared to last year.

“I think everybody has been making a conscious effort of making the extra pass and being stronger with the basketball,” Durant said. “That’s progression. We have to continue to keep making strides in that area. Hopefully we keep the ball in our hands tonight and make some great passes tonight as well.”

The idea of toughness may be simple, but really, it has far reaching implications in a basketball game. As a standard definition, the brute strength and inner fight necessary to get an opponent off his spot is one aspect of that toughness. For the Thunder, however, it goes beyond that. The determination, pride and intelligence that gets transferred from the area between the ears onto the court within the team concept is perhaps the most critical aspect of toughness in the NBA.

“Toughness is making the right play every time down court,” Brooks said. “Whether it’s the simple pass to the open man or it’s setting your man up for a screen to be set, those are the things we talk about. You have to be tough mentally to do those every time down the court. Those little things add up to the big thing.”