Aggressive Defense Ignites Thunder

With Russell Westbrook hounding the ball-handler, sometimes the Thunder’s opposing point guard can barely cross half court, let alone initiate the offense.

In Friday night’s victory over the New Orleans Hornets, Westbrook and the Thunder’s starting lineup set the defensive tone and displayed a relentless type of defensive energy that carried over throughout the rest of the game. Moving forward, Head Coach Scott Brooks wants to see his team continue to display that same effort, intensity and focus on the defensive end from the very start of the game.

“It always helps to have a good start,” Brooks said. “Russell was all over the ball. He was pressuring… That’s when we’re at our best, when we’re really aggressive, we’re scrambling and we’re helping out each other.”

While Kendrick Perkins is the defensive anchor, Serge Ibaka protects the rim and Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Durant use their length and athleticism to deny wing scorers, the Thunder’s defense starts with Westbrook at the top. With a wide base and picture-perfect defensive stance, Westbrook tries to stay in front of, if not practically within millimeters of his man every night. The verve and passion with which Westbrook plays on the defensive end can truly ignite the entire Thunder squad to perform at its highest ability.

“It sparks us a lot, coach put in a few new schemes for us and Perk was great at being our anchor and getting everybody going,” Durant said. “Of course, Russ was the same way with his pressure, and we just followed suit. Once we do that, we’re pretty good on the defensive end, when everybody is just locked in. We have one of the most athletic starting lineups in the league, so we have to use full advantage of it.”

When Westbrook gets into his defensive assignment from the start, it disrupts the timing of the opposition’s offense, forcing them to initiate their offense later in the shot clock. By denying easy entry passes, Westbrook can give his teammates more time to get into a more advantageous defensive position, thus increasing the degree of difficulty for their man’s catch and subsequent shot attempt.

“Disruption is always something that we look to do every possession,” Brooks said. “If we can get a team to take a bad shot, we win that possession, whether he makes it or not. That’s what we strive to do, is disrupt their offense, force them to go to their second and third options and contest that shot at the very end of the clock."

As a whole, the Thunder defense has been stingy throughout the season, forcing opponents to shoot only 48.9 percent from inside of eight feet, the best mark in the league. In addition, the Thunder is averaging 8.0 blocks per game (second best), 33.5 defensive rebounds per game (third best) and holding opponents to 41.9 percent shooting overall, which is good for second best in the NBA. Throughout the first ten games of the season, Durant has noticed that the ever-important communication aspect on defense has been solid, leading to some stout defensive numbers.

“We’re communicating better on the defensive end,” Durant said. “We’re just talking to each other. I think we’re doing a better job of that.”

As always, the Thunder moves forward by focusing on its home game right around the corner against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night. That process began by turning the page right after Friday night’s win and getting back to work in Saturday’s film and practice sessions.

“We focused on the things that we could do better, our defensive schemes and how we passed the ball yesterday,” Durant said. “Coach (Brooks) kind of highlighted that it’s something we need to do from here on out… If we continue to do that, we’ll be fine.”

The Warriors come into Sunday’s contest at Chesapeake Energy Arena with a 5-4 mark and the league’s fifth-best rebounding crew, hauling in 45.6 boards per game. Head Coach Mark Jackson’s squad is also only allowing opponents to shoot 42 percent from the field this season, so a defensive struggle could be on tap with the Thunder’s strong defense ready for battle.

“They always give us a tough game,” Durant said. “Mark Jackson is growing into his own as a coach. We’re looking forward to a tough challenge and we’ll see how we respond.”