Opportunistic Defense Ready for Suns Tonight

In the NBA, the margins are slim between a made shot and a miss and a win and a loss. Forcing an opponent to miss one more shot or creating two more possessions for your own team can make all the difference.

That every play counts mentality exists for the Thunder every night, including in tonight’s game at Chesapeake Energy Arena against the Phoenix Suns. It’s the final game of a three-game home stand for the Thunder before the team flies out to Phoenix to face this same foe again on Sunday night. Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder’s defensive intensity has been evident, and that is what the squad wants to bring to tonight’s contest.

“We have to continue to play like we’ve been playing, first off, which is defense first,” Durant said. “Scoring off our defense and playing together… If we continue hold teams under 42 percent shooting, that’s a formula for us. We have to continue to do that.”

The Thunder’s main goal on each defensive possession is to play within its shell, communicating with one another to stay in front of their men. If there is a break down, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ squad makes sure to be tied on a string in its help defense, with each player having his teammate’s back. By doing that, the Thunder contests its opponent’s shots and forces a low shooting percentage. Over the past two games at home, however, the Thunder has been able to force an average of 16.5 turnovers, which it hopes to do again tonight.

“Just continue to play defense, use our hands, move our feet, anticipate and stay focused,” Brooks said. “We have the ability to be a high steals team… I think our defense has to stay with what we do with our fundamentals being solid then let our defense get the steals.”

Those opponent turnovers, particularly the live-ball ones, are extremely valuable because simply, each steal or forced turnover results in one less shot at the basket for the opponent. Over the course of the season, the Thunder has forced opponents into 14.9 turnovers per game, 8.3 of which have come on steals. Those takeaways often lead to transition opportunities, where the Thunder is scoring a sixth-best 16.3 fast break points each game. The high-caliber scoring Thunder squad wants to get out into the open court and score, particularly after forcing turnovers.

“Every team wants to do that,” Durant said. “That’s the goal. It’s so hard to score, everybody knows your plays. Getting easy points off live-ball turnovers, dunks and layups, especially at home, that gets you excited and your crowd excited. That usually sparks you a little bit.”

As Durant explained, scoring in the NBA is extremely hard to do, so getting easy looks at the basket are paramount to success. Having shot-makers is another important facet to an any offensive punch, and both the Thunder and Suns have players who fill that role. Durant, Westbrook, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka can knock down shots even when pressured, as can Suns players like Luis Scola, Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic.

“They have players who can make buckets,” Brooks said. “Scola is obviously a guy that has given us some problems in the past. Dudley is a three-point shooter. Their point guard (Dragic) is aggressive.”

The Thunder is 2-0 against the Suns already this season, but Phoenix has played better of late. Particularly considering the rare circumstances of playing the same team in back-to-back games for the third and fourth times of the season, the Thunder will have to be ready to bring its best effort tonight.

“They’re playing well, it’s going to be a tough game,” Durant said. “We play them here then we travel and play them our next game. We have to set the tone tonight.”