Energetic & Efficient: Balanced Thunder Continues Its March Toward Daily Growth

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

Meticulously, hour after hour as the summer days wore on, Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each Thunder player, essentially evaluating every tool in his box. All of the mental notes and examination ensured Donovan would be prepared for the task of leading the 2015-16 Thunder.

That diligent work is paying dividends, with each of the 15 men on the roster contributing as the team performs at a high level. The Thunder hit the All-Star break at 40-14, tops in the Northwest Division and the third best record in the NBA.

With each practice and game, Donovan has been able to put his men in better positions to succeed both individually, and more importantly, within the team concept by tapping into each player’s gifts.

Whether that’s deciding on lineups, rotations and minutes based on matchups, on-court fit or specific player combinations, Donovan likes that he has a variety of options to use at his discretion to help the team score buckets and get stops.

“The roster, the way it is set up, we have versatility and flexibility,” Donovan said.

The Thunder, however, experienced early growing pains. In addition to adapting to a new coach, the team was trying to mesh together a different group of players and compete during a vital growth period without Kevin Durant (hamstring strain).

That 11-8 beginning is a distant memory now. The Thunder rolled into the break, winning 29 of its next 35 games behind an offense that ranks No. 2 in efficiency and a defense that is in the top five for efficiency. In fact, during a seven-week stretch from Dec. 4 to Jan. 21, the Thunder defense allowed the second-fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” Durant said. “We had some ups and downs throughout the season, but we’re growing and we’re getting better.”

Added veteran guard Anthony Morrow: “We’re in a really good place. Defensively, we’re trending up. Everybody is in tune and in sync. We’ve shown how special we can be. We’re getting to that point. We still have a little bit more to go, consistently doing it, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The team’s statistical marks when compared to the rest of the league are impressive, but stand out even further in the context of recent NBA history.

In the past 15 seasons, only 10 teams – including the 2012-13 Thunder -- have sported a net rating (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of plus-9.1 or better. The Thunder, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs have all been around or above that mark all season.

The key to the team’s success is that it hasn’t just been playing efficiently on one end of the floor or the other. Rather, it’s a combination of offensive firepower and defensive toughness. That balance helped the Thunder roll to a 22-4 mark in games played in December and January, and included win streaks of seven and six games.

Through Jan. 21st, the Thunder offensive rating was 109.2 and its defensive rating was 100.1. Besides this year’s Spurs, only two other NBA teams since 1973 have simultaneously had an offensive rating that high and a defensive rating that low for a season: the 2007-08 Boston Celtics and the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs. Both teams won the NBA Finals.

With so much basketball to play, those numbers are not an indicator of where the Thunder will land, but rather an encouraging sign to show that if it continues to stay hungry and pursue excellence through daily growth, it can put itself in a great position to advance come playoff time.

“We never would be satisfied around this time of year,” Durant explained. “We’re not worried about where our ceiling is. We’re just going to keep working every day and wherever it’s at, at the end of the season, we’ve got to be satisfied with it.”

“We want sustainability in general on both ends of the floor, creating habits in practice,” Morrow added. “Not just doing them when the lights are on, but doing them every single day in practice, after practice and then in the game it’ll show and there will be carry over.”

Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison have been through all the postseason battles a team could imagine, despite the fact that none of the first three players have seen their 28th birthday yet. Durant and Westbrook were voted in as Western Conference All-Star starters – Westbrook was named the game’s MVP for the second consecutive year -- and have once again elevated their play on both ends of the floor. Rookies like Cameron Payne, relative newcomers like Enes Kanter and young, emerging talents like Steven Adams all take their cues from the team’s core veterans.

“We’re just coming in focused on the task at hand, trying to take care of business and take it one game at a time,” Westbrook said. “If you play the right way, you can live with the results.”

Added Durant: “We lead this team and they follow our lead. We’re just learning as the year goes on. We all know what the coaches need from us and where we can be better.”

One of the ways the Thunder duo has ensured that the right mentality is being brought to each game is by practicing it first themselves. While they both are in the top 10 in points scored per game, Durant and Westbrook have also done an excellent job of facilitating for teammates.

They’ve produced nearly 15 combined assists per contest while helping the Thunder raise the amount of baskets coming off of assists by seven percentage points in January compared to November. With two top-10 scorers emphasizing offensive execution and dedication to ball and player movement, it’s been easy to for the other rotation players to follow suit.

“We’re executing and paying attention to detail on the offensive end,” Morrow said. “We’re setting screens, using screens and guys are taking shots that they’re comfortable with. We’re giving ourselves up for the next guy.”

On the defensive end, the Thunder has shown an ability to be disruptive, solid and opportunistic all at once because of its length, size, strength, quickness, versatility and flexibility.

Throughout the year, the Thunder has been one of the league’s best rebounding teams, while ranking in the top five in both opponent field goal percentage and in blocked shots. The goal of the Thunder defense is to communicate, get back in front of the ball and bait opponents into contested, long-range, two-point shots.

“If we’re forcing the kind of shots that we want to force a team to take, you’re going to live with them,” Donovan said. “It’s the self-inflicted ones that we have to clean up.”

As Donovan alludes, there are still areas where the Thunder wants to stay sharp and prevent slippage, just like every NBA defense. Building consistency and elevating the standard of play on defense is a yearlong process that inevitably includes ups and downs. For the Thunder, it’s about staying disciplined, being in the right place and focusing on a few core areas: defensive rebounding, getting back in transition and preventing open three-point looks. 

Throughout the year, when the Thunder has executed in those domains, it has been a hard team to beat. The team’s ability to self-assess and tackle challenges as they come is vital to the steady growth required of contenders. As the club moves forward into the final stretch of the season, Donovan and his staff will put all 15 men in position to thrive as they work together to adapt to each challenge.  

“You give those guys scenarios and situations where they have to work through those situations together,” Donovan said. “They pay attention, they want to get better as a team and they want to improve. They’re experienced enough, committed enough and work hard enough that you’ll see some effects from it.”