Day 2, for Defense
The “magic box” always tells the truth, or so the saying goes among NBA players and coaches. When watching film the day after a game, the Thunder coaching staff will sometimes see a blown defensive assignment and wonder what coverage was actually called out by the players on the floor.
Maybe one teammate didn’t yell a defensive call in time, maybe his teammate didn’t hear it or reacted to it incorrectly. Either way, the magic box actually can’t always get to the whole truth.
In NBA games, particularly in the playoffs, the reason it’s impossible for the coaches to really uncover the source of the mistakes is because the crowd noise drowns out the chatter before it reaches the bench. Down in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, that surround sound noise won’t exist.
“We're gonna get in trouble a lot more,” grinned a sheepish Steven Adams. “The coaches are going to hear us.”
“One of the most difficult things about the playoffs is how loud it is,” Adams continued. “Even if you do call it, the player in front of you can’t actually hear it – your own teammates. That’s home and away. So, now that it's all crystal-clear mate, you should see, theoretically, the coverages shouldn't be blown as much.”
Perhaps the most important part of any NBA defense, including the Thunder’s top-10 rated unit during the first 64 games of the 2019-20 campaign, is communication. During the first two days of practice in preparation for the seeding games that begin in three weeks, the Thunder’s main focus has been honing those defensive coverages.
“Something that we've focused on here actually last two days in practice defensively is being a little bit louder and more precise and being in a position where we're communicating at a high level where everybody’s on the same page,” explained Head Coach Billy Donovan.
“One of the things that (Thunder point guard) Chris (Paul) always tells me you know is to be loud on defense,” said rookie guard Lu Dort. “I feel like that will bring a lot of energy.”
WATCH: Loud, Precise Defensively
In this unprecedented situation where 22 teams are all assembled on a campus, taking their turns at practice courts in preparation for the eight seeding games and the playoffs, each squad is going to try to capture their identity. For some teams, that means assessing the new look of its roster after the hiatus and going a different direction. For the Thunder, it seems to be locking into what made the team a Western Conference menace from Thanksgiving to early March.
“Every team is different in how they think they’re going to win games or whatnot,” said Adams, the Thunder’s defensive anchor. “Some teams just want to score more points than the other team, which is the goal for everyone. That's how you win a game. But they push that more than defense. So, it depends on the team. For us, we're just focusing mainly on defense.”
One of the players who was integral to the Thunder maintaining its fantastic defensive rating, its low foul rate and 3-point defense was rookie guard Lu Dort. Previously on a two-way contract, Dort signed a full-time deal with the Thunder in June in anticipation of his future trajectory but also as positive reinforcement for the 21-straight games he started for the Thunder from January 20 through March 8.
“When a player like that comes around, it’s always nice to see a growth like that happen,” Adams said of Dort. “It’s a really good thing for the organization itself.”
During that time, Dort wasn’t practicing with the Thunder, saving up the precious days he was allowed to be with the team under the provisions of the two-way contract. Now, as a member of the full-time roster, Dort was actually able to lace up his shoes and compete.
“It feels good it's way better to be on the court with the guys instead of just watching film,” Dort said. “I feel like I've been learning way more.”
While Dort was the Thunder’s starting shooting guard when the season came to a halt, Donovan didn’t commit to a starting lineup or rotation at the Thunder’s second day of workouts. Though he’d like the team’s identity and cohesion to eventually get back to where it was, he understands that the landscape of the group could be different. For example, Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley all dealt with injuries as wing players during the season, and they’ve all had time to hone their bodies and games over the past four months.
Then there’s the wild card that is Andre Roberson, the veteran defensive maestro who practiced again fully with the squad on Saturday. A fan favorite and a top teammate too, Roberson has been embraced by other Thunder players as he’s gotten back on the court with the team in practice for the first time since training camp. No one is happier than Adams, who shares a tight bond with Roberson since they were drafted alongside one another in 2013.
“Just seeing him in good spirits too, that’s the main thing,” said Adams. “It’s good to see him chipper like that.”
Donovan said he’s staying open to playing more guys in this bubble environment to keep everyone fresh and in rhythm. The team will need to be flexible with whatever gets thrown its way, on and off the court. He’s not surprised that with a four-month layoff the Thunder’s first practice was highly energetic and enthusiastic, but sloppy. The players kept themselves in top physical shape, which is truly remarkable, and made strides in day two of practice, as expected.
“The energy level of our team the last two days has been really, really good, but the execution, the attention to small things that are going to become big things, we've got to be better at,” Donovan said. “We're two-for-two right now. We have to have really productive days. We cannot waste days. We can't have days where we're not improving and getting better and getting back to some of the things that made us a really good team back in February and March.”
“We've got to lift each other up. We've got to help each other. We got to support each other,” Donovan continued. “They've had really good enthusiasm and energy and practice. They’ve come across very, very eager to play and they've been very supportive of one another. That's what you got to do really from a mental standpoint. You got to be there to lift each other up because not everybody's gonna have a great day every day.”