Defense, Will Power Lead to Success

When it feels like there’s a lid on the rim and the transition attack is bogged down in mud, the Thunder just focuses on old reliable - its defense.

There will be nights when the Thunder’s offense, one of the most efficient in the league, seems to be clicking on all cylinders, but others when the team can’t seem to find a rhythm. That’s just the nature of an 82-game NBA season. It’s how the Thunder responds to that, particularly on the defensive end, that shapes how the game will be played. By locking in on individual assignments, communicating and helping one another, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ squad tries to grind out defensive stops to spark the offense.

“We talk about it constantly with our guys,” Brooks said. “That’s what they know that wins. We have to always have that pressure defensively. It’s not that we’re going to hold teams to 30 percent (shooting)... But we have to be able to focus on that end, because it allows us to score. We’re one of the best transition teams in the game when we get a stop, a block or a steal. We have to continue to always think that.”

The Thunder ranks seventh in fast break points per game at 16.4, and many of those opportunities stem from its ability to force missed shots and get blocked shots. In fact, the Thunder is tied for first in the NBA with 7.6 blocked shots per game and allows only 42.5 percent shooting to opponents, second best in the league. For each player on the Thunder roster, even one of the NBA’s most efficient offensive players like Kevin Martin, every night’s effort comes down to how the team plays defense.

“That’s our number one thing every night,” Martin said. “We rely on our defense every night, it’s just that our offense is so good, people think we rely on our offense. Our defense is our number one priority every night.”

Part of that is having skilled defenders and a great system put into place by Brooks and the staff, but the rest is based off of energy, effort and concentration. The Thunder focuses on areas that would normally net easy points for the opponent, and attempts to deny those scoring opportunities. For example, the Thunder ranks second in the league in fast break points allowed at 11.1 per game, meaning that they are hustling back in transition.

In addition, the Thunder focuses on not fouling, shown by its fifth-best free throw attempts allowed rate and eighth-best points in the paint-allowed mark. According to Brooks, it is the mentality and commitment of team leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that spurs on the rest of the team to play heads up defense.

“It’s always about defense and we can’t have one or two defenders on the floor,” Brooks said. “All five guys have to do their job. Russell and Kevin, they obviously are tremendous scorers, but they’re also part of our defensive package. They’ve done a good job all year, and they’ve done a good job for many years. They have to continue to have that mentality.”

In the same way that the Thunder fights and claws together to get defensive stops, it uses offensive possessions to do the same if the offense and outside shooting is stagnant. The aforementioned fast break points are an area that the high-paced Thunder squad likes to take advantage of, but in the half-court, Martin and his teammates are adept at drawing fouls, then converting free throws.

In fact, the Thunder is attempting the second most free throws a game at 27.9, making a league-best 23.2 per contest. Those numbers amount to what would be a record setting 83.4 free throw shooting percentage if it holds up throughout the season.

“If you know your outside shot isn’t falling, you try to get a couple easy ones at the basket. Hopefully the referees are calling it in your favor and you can get a couple easy ones at the free throw line, and then feel out the game from there.”

It certainly helps that Martin is shooting 93.0 percent from the free throw line and his scoring compatriot in Durant is knocking down 89.3 percent of his attempts as well. As the Thunder has learned, however, over the years, there are going to be bumps in the road. That’s why it is important for the team to constantly rely on the areas it can control – effort, intensity, focus and defense. It is difficult to play a consistently high level of basketball every single night, but it is something that the Thunder strives for as it puts its nine game winning streak to the test against the Sacramento Kings at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday night.

“It is (a challenge),” Martin said. “That’s why you can’t take for granted what we’re doing right now. Hopefully Friday night we come out with a little bit more energy, shots are going in a little better and we play as a team.”