Sonics Making Strides on Defense
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Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | December 10, 2007
Seattle SuperSonics fans could be forgiven if they were a little confused exiting KeyArena on Nov. 30. The Sonics had shot 42.7% from the field in that game and turned the ball over 21 times. Despite a fast-paced game, they had scored only 95 points. Yet still the Sonics had emerged victorious over the Indiana Pacers, holding off a late Pacers run.

The last two seasons, as the Sonics struggled to stop teams from scoring, winning with defense was a relatively uncommon occurrence at the Key. The Sonics were 3-33 when scoring less than 100 points during the 2005-06 season, improving that mark to 10-31 last season. They nearly matched those three sub-century wins over the last week and a half, adding a 95-88 victory over the L.A. Clippers last Wednesday to their win over the Pacers.


Carlesimo
Asked last week his priorities during the 2007-08 season, Sonics Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo placed improving on defense second only to consistent effort. A defensive-minded coach throughout his career at the NCAA and NBA levels, Carlesimo only had that belief reinforced during his five seasons in San Antonio. The Spurs boasted the NBA's top defense three times during that span, meaning Carlesimo's defensive expectations are high: "We're nowhere where we need to be defensively yet," he added when talking about defense's importance.

Certainly, the Sonics have room for improvement on the defensive end of the court, but they have already made strides at that end of the court, progress partially obscured by the team's fast pace. Only the Golden State Warriors allow more points per game than the Sonics (105.5). Consider the team's performance on a per-possession basis, however, and the numbers tell a different story. The Sonics rank 19th in the NBA in Defensive Rating, allowing 108.0 points per 100 possessions. While that's still not great, if maintained over the course of the season, it would be the best the Sonics have rated at the defensive end of the court since 2002-03.

The Sonics defense has been particularly stingy over their last five games, and it comes as no coincidence that the team has gone 3-2 in that span. In all three wins, the Sonics held their opponent under 40% shooting from the field, something they did just nine times last season. All five games saw the Sonics lower their Defensive Rating for the season, as illustrated by the following graph, which shows their Defensive Rating through each game (that is, including all games up to and including the game in question):

That graph slightly understates the team's improvement over the last five games - and overstates the period in which they struggled on defense - because, over the course of the early season, offenses get better and Defensive Ratings go up around the league.

The Sonics defense has been particularly strong in terms of forcing misses. Opponents are shooting 44.3% against the Sonics this season, ranking them ninth in the NBA. Remarkably, that's far better than the Spurs, who are allowing an atypically-high 46.5% from the field in the early going.

What makes the Sonics field-goal defense especially impressive is that, while Kurt Thomas' veteran savvy in the middle and ability to defend the pick-and-roll has been a boon for the Sonics, the team doesn't have a shot-blocking anchor in the paint. Their leading shot-blocker thus far is actually rookie shooting guard Kevin Durant at 1.3 per game. A team effort - six Sonics average at least a half a block a game - has the Sonics ninth in the league in blocks as a team (5.2).

One area where the Sonics have an area to continue to advance on defense is defending the three-point line. In Carlesimo's mind, the percentage the Sonics allow from three-point range (currently 36.4%, slightly worse than the league average of 35.5%) is not as important as keeping teams from attempting those shots in the first place. San Antonio annually ranks amongst the league leaders in limiting three-point attempts; they rank third so far this season, with opponents attempting 18.4% of their shots from beyond the arc. 23.5% of shots by Sonics opponents have been threes, just above the league average of 22.2%.

Including defending the three, the Sonics hope to continue their progress on defense over the final three-quarters of the season. For now, however, even the coach with the high standards is seeing things he likes at that end of the court.

"Weíre defending a little better," Carlesimo said after the Sonics beat Milwaukee on Friday. "We obviously didnít do a good job on Michael Redd [who had 41 points] and still 37% (opponent shooting) is really good."