In the Thunder’s first preseason game of 2017-18, the Houston Rockets scored only 18 points in the paint, on just 23 shot attempts. For reference, the Rockets averaged 46.7 points in the paint per game last season.
The data point turned into a trend for the Thunder’s defense in the remaining three exhibition games. 38 points in the paint allowed to the bruising New Orleans Pelicans, just 26 allowed to the cagey Melbourne United club of Australia’s NBL and 30 in the paint for the Denver Nuggets, one of the most prolific offenses in the league in the last half of 2016-17. That’s an average of 28 points in the paint allowed per game, which would have been the lowest by far amongst all NBA teams last season.
Sure, the Thunder’s personnel has changed with the additions of high level veterans, and yes it’s still preseason when teams are still working out their own offensive kinks. But why, stylistically, has the Thunder been so stingy defensively in the middle? That’s easy. It’s been the team’s biggest point of emphasis.
“The one thing we’ve tried to do is take away the free throw line and the deep paint,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “Then through rotations and scramble situations to try to get out to shooters.”
The Thunder’s priorities on defense stem from one basic principle – everything bad that can happen for a defense occurs when the opposition gets the ball into the lane. That’s where layups happen. Fouls come in bunches because defenders come crashing over late to try to block shots or take charges. Often those fouls are and-one opportunities that close to the rim. The deep paint is also where the most natural, easy drive-and-dish, catch-and-shoot three-pointers come from.
As a result, the Thunder is working tirelessly this preseason to prevent opposing guards and wings from breaking down the defense and getting straight line drives into the middle. Those are pretty much impossible to defend. Much easier are long-two point jumpers, and even three-pointers, because of the Thunder’s length and athleticism, which helps them close out with a hand in the face of shooters.
“It’s five-man defense,” point guard Russell Westbrook said. “Using our hands, our length, our smarts and using our speed as well as our athleticism.”
“Multiple efforts on the defensive end, communication - those things are key to defenses being successful,” forward Carmelo Anthony added. “In the four games in the preseason we showed that we worked on that. Of course we have to get better at it. We have to keep working at it and drilling it, but I was impressed by the way we were able to keep teams out of the middle. Our second efforts, our rebounding - those things are going to win games.”
Camp Talk: Roberson, Donovan
In order for the Thunder’s entire defensive philosophy to work, it will take a significant amount of cohesion, intelligence and mutual support. Inevitably, players get beat on the perimeter. The ball gets into the low block. A cutter or a roll man finds a crease in the middle of the floor to make the catch. From there, the Thunder has to put out fires, and must know which players in which positions are in charge of doing so.
Each man must take pride in their own individual defense, but just as vital will be the understanding they have and effort they give for their help side responsibilities. Knowing when to rotate, getting the timing down and being in position early enough to prevent fouling will make the defense even more impenetrable.
“For us it’s a lot about help defense and trusting each other out there. A lot of it is going to come down to making teams take the shots that we want them to take,” forward Josh Huestis said. “People want to take threes or get to the rim or the free throw line, so it’s being able to force teams into taking the shots we want and relying on each other to help out in situations where somebody might get beat.”
“You have to have really good ball awareness. When you lose vision of the ball and don’t see the ball, you’re generally not in a position to help,” Donovan added. “It’s been our awareness defensively for guys off the ball where it is and where help needs to come from. We’ve done a really nice job helping and then scrambling and trying to get out.”
According to defensive whiz Andre Roberson, the Thunder has a phrase, “no middle”, that it lives by on the defensive end. In order to execute on that principle, everyone’s technique has to match up, and be precise. The footwork, the hands and the body positioning all play a factor in forcing the opposition to go where the Thunder wants them to.
When the ball gets swung to the second side of the floor, as Roberson described, the Thunder has to be tied on a string as a unit to get over into position to do it all over again. In order to get that defense choreographed, it takes time, energy and diligence.
Plus there’s still plenty for this Thunder squad to work on. In the preseason, the Thunder fouled more than it would like, giving up 23.5 free throw attempts per game, because of 24.5 personal fouls per contest. That’s an area for growth moving forward, as it’s denial of the three-point line. The Thunder’s four opponents attempted 55, 32, 31 and 33 three-pointers in each of the exhibition clashes.
Fortunately, the Thunder has a veteran crew with a defense and team-first mindset, which makes the process of implementing a defensive system a smoother one. Having players who know the ins and outs of professional basketball and have seen how the game is changing in real time will be a huge bonus for Donovan and company, as they try to make this Thunder defense one of the very best in the NBA this year.
“Drilling it, practicing it every day, making it a major part of our practice and our focus,” Anthony noted. “When it comes to the game, it’s easy. It’s muscle memory, it’s something that we’re used to and we work on so it’s not foreign to us when it comes to real game situations.”
“Understanding how to work together defensively is really critical and a big part of working together is having the communication,” Donovan said. “Generally, veteran guys communicate a lot better than younger guys. That’s just the way it is.”
Watch: Thunder Minute - 10/14