Thunder Growing While Sticking to Principles

NEW YORK – With young leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it’s no surprise that the Thunder continues to grow.

Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club sticks to its principles of playing tough defense and then getting out and using its athleticism in the open floor to attack on offense. There are other areas of the game, however, where the Thunder has tried to improve in order to become a well-balanced team.

One such area is ball protection, where the Thunder has shown signs of development. It has majorly improved its assist-to-turnover ratio this season and just last game, on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder tied an NBA record with only two turnovers.

“I think it was a big step for us having two turnovers last game,” Durant said. “It was a good stepping stone for us. Hopefully we just continue to keep playing as a team and continue to keep getting better every single day.”

Improvement in different aspects of the game, whether it is with turnovers, defensive rebounding or other areas has not happened overnight. This has been a gradual process that has occurred over the past five seasons since the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City. The team’s longest-tenured member, Nick Collison, has a unique vantage point as a veteran who has seen the evolution of young All-Stars like Durant and Westbrook and the integration of new players within the team over the years.

“What we’ve tried to do is do the work every day,” Collison said. “It’s taken a long time, but continually to come to work and do our jobs and work hard, we’ve seen a lot of improvement, and a lot of growth. They’ve done a good job of finding good pieces to put together, but the development part of it has been really big too.”

Collison has been a stalwart in the paint for the Thunder over the years, and alongside Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Hasheem Thabeet, Brooks will need his bigs to be active tonight against the New York Knicks. With a player like Tyson Chandler roaming the middle of the floor on both ends, the Thunder’s post players will have a challenge on its hands. Brooks’ club always plays a physical brand of basketball, so expect a battle on tap tonight at Madison Square Garden.

“They have some toughness,” Brooks said. “Defensively, Tyson does a good job of anchoring it and communicating the players through the defense. Offensively, they put you in a tough position because they have a good roller and they have great three-point shooters.”

Even if the Knicks’ All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony doesn’t suit up tonight because of a knee injury, the Knicks have made and attempted the most three pointers out of any team in the league this year while also averaging the fewest turnovers. That steadiness on offense combined with their perimeter sharpshooting ability presents a challenge for the Thunder as it tries to defend throughout the night.

“Their ability to break you down and get open jump shots from three, they’re really good at spreading you out with a lot of shooters,” Collison said. “They get into their spots quickly. Chandler is one of the best rollers in the league. So he puts a lot of pressure on you. You have to be able to get in and stop him on the rolls, then get back out and close out to shooters.”

Awareness is one of the most critical elements for an NBA team to have, and the Thunder’s ability to assess what it does well in comparison to what other teams do well is an important part of the scouting process. Veterans like Collison, along with the coaching and scouting staff, help everyone on the team understand what to do strategically to stop the Knicks tonight. On both ends of the floor it seems the pick-and-roll, as Collison outlined, will be a major focus. Both executing on offense and containing on defense will be key for the Thunder tonight.

“That’s the toughest thing to do in basketball, to close out to shooters,” Collison said. “So if we can avoid breakdowns at the point of pick-and-rolls, if we can cover that up pretty well, we won’t have to help so much and we’ll be in a much better situation.”