Key to Up Tempo Game Will Be Defense

At 39-14, the Thunder registered the second best record in the NBA through the first half of the season, but coming out of All-Star Weekend, its only concern is the final 29 games of the regular season.

That starts tonight with a road test against the Houston Rockets, who the Thunder has beaten in both previous contests this season. In order for the Thunder to get the second half of the season started correctly, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club used a practice on Tuesday and this morning’s shoot-around to get right back into the swing of things. Using the momentum of a positive start to the year, the Thunder’s leaders like Kevin Durant want the team to use each day to improve on the strides in made early in the season.

“I would say we had a really good first half, but it’s how you finish,” Durant said. “I think everybody in this gym knows that, coaches and players. We just have to go out there and get better every single day. I think that’s one thing we’ve always been preaching. We just have to continue to keep moving forward.”

Practices and shoot-arounds are perfect opportunities to continue to work on timing, eliminate natural slippage in execution that occurs during the grueling NBA season and iron out any areas of concern. One of the most difficult things to do in professional sports is to find ways to get better when the team is winning. That’s why the Thunder’s leadership and players like Durant, Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison helped the team hit the ground running coming out of the All-Star Break.

“Just continue to get better,” Brooks said. “That’s one of the things that we take pride in. We take pride in just improving and working every day, building our good habits. The All-Star Break was a great time to focus on what we do and try to improve on it. That’s passing, defending and just playing hard.”

The closeness the Thunder locker room has is also an important factor in helping the team jump right back into its normal routine. Some players went to see family while Durant and Westbrook represented Oklahoma City in Houston during All-Star Weekend, but that didn’t stop Serge Ibaka from stopping in to check out Westbrook coaching the Celebrity All-Star game and from players like Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin from keeping a close eye on the Thunder’s coverage of the team’s two All-Stars.

The tight knit group was separated for only a few days, but because of the family feel the locker room has, it felt like forever.

“I think guys are just ready to play again,” Durant said. “Three or four days away from them, you kind of miss them a little bit and you’re ready to play. I think everybody came back with a lot of focus and a lot of energy towards practice yesterday, and it was a good day.”

That camaraderie often displays itself on the court when teammates congratulate one another when they make hustle plays, take charges or swing that extra pass to turn a good shot into a great shot. Look for that tonight against Houston, who presents many of the same challenges the Thunder forces opponents to deal with. The teams rank first and second in the league in points per game, and although the Thunder has better all-around shooting percentages, the Rockets still make over 10 three pointers per game, a definite threat tonight.

“We’re both very explosive, we both pass the ball, we both have good three-point shooters,” Brooks said. “Their three-point shooting is very concerning… They have the ability to drive and kick. They have good ball-handlers on the perimeter and they have a big that rolls hard and gets rebounds offensively. We have to be really solid and zoned in on our defensive principles.”

The Thunder’s offense has been at its highest levels of the season in the team’s two wins over Houston, scoring 120 and 124 points in each of those contests. According to Brooks, the key to those games- and thus tonight’s also- was the fact that the Thunder turned defensive stops into offensive opportunities. Against the more-than-potent Houston offense that can be a tall task, but with the right combination of focus, communication and execution, the Thunder hopes it can replicate its previous defensive efforts.

“I think when you play good defense, you put yourself in a position to score,” Brooks said. “That’s been our formula for many years. We have to continue to work under those parameters. We’re a scoring team, but we have to score off our defense.”