Maintaining Principled Play, Defensive Intensity

DENVER – Any team in the NBA can play well enough to win on a given night. The secret is how to be consistently good over the course of weeks, months and even years.

The key for the Thunder under Head Coach Scott Brooks has been to approach every day of practice and each game day the same way, using an identical mental intensity to each work day to be as well prepared as possible. Whether the Thunder is playing a sub-.500 team or the 37-22 Denver Nuggets like the team is tonight, it’s confidence comes through the knowledge that it can count on its level of energy and effort to be high.

“We just try to play hard whoever we play,” Brooks said. “We always try to stay level, just play with force and energy and togetherness throughout the game, no matter who we play.”

Throughout the course of the season the Thunder has been perhaps the single best offensive team in the league, averaging the most points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from the three-point line. For team leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, however, the focus is always on the defensive side of the floor, where it is constantly searching for a full 48 minute effort night-in and night-out. The last two games the Thunder has held its opponent to under 75 points and below 40 percent shooting, but it faces a quite a unique challenge tonight.

“We’re playing a different type of team,” Durant said. “These last two teams, they’re not really big at getting up and down the court so quickly. We really defended well in the half court. One thing we have to challenge ourselves to do is to get back tonight.”

Whereas the two teams the Thunder most recently defeated, the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets, tried to slow the pace of the game down and execute its sets using the duration of the 24-second shot clock, the Nuggets under Head Coach George Karl couldn’t operate more oppositely. Denver plays at the second highest pace in the league, scoring 19.5 fast break points per game, the highest in the NBA.

“They get up and down, they go small where they have one big and basically four guards and space the court,” Thunder center and defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins said. “One thing about them, they kick ahead. It doesn’t matter to who, they’ll kick ahead and attack. They try to score in the first six seconds and they attack the rim.”

The Thunder’s defense forces its opponents to shoot the second lowest percentage in the NBA, and with defensive-minded players like Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha up and down the lineup that should be no surprise. One area Brooks’ squad has tried to look at throughout the year, however, is preventing what Denver likes to do best – score in transition. The Thunder typically only allows 12.5 points per game on the break, so sticking to its typical plan of getting back on defense, turning and forcing the Nuggets to run its sets will be the best way to slow down Karl’s club.

“Transition D, communication tonight and trying to limit their paint points,” Perkins said. “They lead the league in points in the paint with 57. That’s where they like to attack. They like to get out and run. The transition D, talking and communicating is the first step.”

Over the past week, a common thread for the Thunder’s defensive success has been that communication that Perkins outlined when describing the keys to tonight’s game. The unity with which the Thunder plays on the defensive end will be crucial not only tonight, but throughout the year and as the playoffs approach. As for the team’s focus however, it’s solely on how it can win tonight’s game against a difficult opponent in a tough road environment. As always, it’s preparation, focus and intensity is at the highest of levels, regardless of circumstance.

“It’s going to be a tough test, but we’re all looking forward to it,” Durant said. “I think we’ve prepared pretty well and we’ve had some good practice time these last few days as well… We’re looking forward to a challenge and every guy on this team takes the challenge head on. Hopefully it’s a good one tonight.”