Perimeter D, Offensive Balance Crucial Moving Forward

PORTLAND -- When Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks looks across the court during shoot-around, he sees a group of players he can count on for maximum levels of energy every night.

No matter what the circumstance, the Thunder knows it can play its hardest on a nightly basis. That energy was evident at Tuesday's shoot-around in Portland, where Russell Westbrook was cheering on the bigs who were knocking down short corner jumpers, and Derek Fisher was putting up extra shots from the elbow. That energy from the perimeter players is what allowed the Thunder to have so much success on defense against the Miami Heat on Sunday night, and it is what spurs them going forward. After Sunday's game, Center Kendrick Perkins said the guard-play on defense was at an extremely high level, and that it must continue heading into the stretch run of the season.

"I agree with Perk, it was good," Brooks said. "The defense was outstanding, the ball pressure was good. Our activity on the ball, awareness away from the ball was good. Our rebounding was good. It was one of our better defensive games against one of the toughest teams in basketball. ... Our defense was really good, all around, it was one of our better defensive games."

The other component to the win on Sunday was the distribution of the basketball, not only in terms of assists, but with regards to which players got open looks and knocked down shots throughout the game. While Brooks acknowledged that there will be games that the Thunder must rely on Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden to do the majority of the scoring, it was nice to get players like Serge Ibaka and Perkins into a scoring rhythm. The frontcourt duo combined for 35 points in the win on 16-for-21 shooting from the field. That type of offensive ability will be tough to account for when teams focus on the Thunder's three main offensive weapons. Brooks credited the big night for the bigs to great offensive execution.

"It's always important to get everybody involved," Brooks said. "Everybody was involved, everybody was touching the ball. I think there were only three or four sets that there was not more than one pass. That's always good. We've always tried to build our team on passing and we're going to continue to stress it and work on it. I thought the passing, the offense was really good."

Nazr Mohammed, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha all also got involved in the scoring action on Sunday, including an acrobatic finish at the rim from Mohammed, one of the Thunder's elder statesmen. A 13-year veteran, Mohammed has seen what it takes to have success in the league. He echoed Brooks' comments on the importance of finding one other on the floor, having offensive balance and also noted that Collison and Perkins are crucial to the success of interior passing between the post players.

"It's a great thing because then you have everybody going into the end of the season and the postseason feeling good about their game," Mohammed said. "Having that balance to attack offensively is definitely good at the end of the year."

While the Thunder's 103-87 victory over the Heat was a treat for the fans, the team's attention immediately turned to the Portland Trail Blazers, who the Thunder is now facing for the fourth time this season, and second time in the past nine days. Defeating Portland only days after the trade deadline in which the Blazers made some major roster alterations, the Thunder was able to win against a team that was finding ways to get its new pieces into place. Now that the Blazers have had a week and a half to gel, Mohammed said that the Thunder has a little bit more to work off of when scouting tonight's opponent than it did the last time.

"They're playing well, they're playing harder," Mohammed said. "You can see the intensity and everybody is having a little bit more fun, which makes them dangerous."

The Blazers always present a difficult challenge, and the Thunder is 2-1 against Portland this year, splitting the games in Chesapeake Energy Arena and defeating them in overtime the last time the two teams met in the Rose Garden. Since the Thunder saw them last, the Blazers are 2-2, including home wins against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors and a close road loss at the Los Angeles Lakers. Brooks said that the Blazers have been playing well lately, and that the Thunder must be ready for a physical battle tonight.

"They've had some tough games," Brooks said. "They had a tough loss against (the Lakers). They had a chance to win that game in the last two minutes of the game. They have some good players. They have an All-Star in (LaMarcus) Aldridge. Their point guard is really good and they have some shooters on the floor. We always play each other tough. At our place, at their place, it's always a tough place to play. Their crowd is one of the best in the league. We expect a very physical, very tough game tonight."