Defending Hard, and Smart
For the 64 games of the 2019-20 regular season, the Thunder ranked first in the NBA in opponent free throw attempts and third overall in fouls per game.
At Monday’s practice, the fourth get-together for the Thunder down inside Orlando’s NBA bubble, the Thunder did a ton of scrimmaging. It also did a ton of fouling.
According to Donovan that’s to be expected with a four-month hiatus serving as not just a speed bump but a full-on toll booth stop for a Thunder squad that had gone a blistering 34-13 since Thanksgiving thanks in large part to a precise defensive approach. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club was disciplined and focused in one-on-one situations, and as far as the five-man unit, it was choreographed like the players were on a Broadway stage.
Donovan knows that fouling in practice now will mean his team will be better positioned and more judicious with their aggressiveness down the line. He knows this because his current strategy of high-energy, scrimmage-heavy practices is the same tack he took back in October when this new-look group first got assembled.
Players get put into compromising situations all the time in NBA games as opponents attack the lane, come around screens and pump fake with the ball. Thunder players are taught to avoid jumping directionally through the air, opting instead to go straight up and down. If a player is shooting a jumper, a hand in the face will suffice, no need to risk trying to actually block the shot.
With the new rules implemented by the NBA on freedom of movement, Thunder players are also taught to defend more with their feet and be acutely aware of their hands when defending guards who come around screening actions hunting for foul calls. The top ways the Thunder kept opposing free throws down was by not fouling far away from the rim or in jump shot situations.
“There's a lot of areas on the floor where you can give up silly fouls or silly free throws,” said Donovan. “It's something we just try to focus on we try to make a real point of emphasis of not picking up those cheap fouls because as physical as the game is and as much contactor as there is around the basket, you're naturally going to have fouls.”
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In the first few days back in the bubble, the focus was on defensive communication – talking out coverages and making sure that teammates were directed to be in the right position on the floor. Now with a few days working under the video cameras, the team has some material to look at on tape.
That’s where Hamidou Diallo, a 21-year-old second-year guard, has made his greatest strides. During his rookie year, he picked up 5.3 fouls per-36 minutes – a high figure, but lower than defensive ace Steven Adams’ per-36 rookie numbers. This season, Diallo has committed 4.2 fouls per-36 minutes – an impressive 1.1 fewer than last year. For reference, Adams decreased his foul rate by 1.6 per-36 minutes between years 1 and 2, relying largely on film study. Diallo’s improvement is based on being in better positioning thanks to a ton of work with Thunder assistant David Akinyooye, with the duo pouring over practice and game footage for the past 12 months.
“Film plays a big part in that, knowing when to pick your spots, where to be aggressive and where not to be aggressive,” said Diallo. “For me coming in as a second unit player, I see what the refs are letting guys get away with and what they're not. So I try to keep that on the forte in my mind and try to go out there and just try to be as aggressive as I can be in those spots.”
At the shooting guard position, Diallo is often guarding some of the league’s quickest players, who also have elite ballhandling skills. While rookie Darius Bazley mostly covered power forwards during his 53 regular season games for OKC, he still had to deal with high-level players and veterans who know the tricks of the trade. Yet Bazley held the second lowest foul rate (1.8 per 36 minutes) of anyone on the Thunder this season.
At the very beginning of the year, Bazley got caught biting on opponents pump fakes, but straightened that issue out with the help of the Thunder coaching staff along with vets like Danilo Gallinari and Chris Paul.
“One big thing was being a ‘second jumper’,” Bazley said, meaning to wait until a shooter fully leaves the ground before rising up to contest the shot. “I have a lot of length and size so I don't necessarily need to be the first one off the ground.”
In addition to staying down and showing the referees your hands, there’s a meta game when it comes to fouling, and the Thunder seems to be dialed in there too. Donovan’s club ranks in the top four in fewest fouls when there is between 4 and 15 seconds on the shot clock, when teams are already deep into their offensive actions and are starting to feel the pressure to get a shot off. In essence, the Thunder doesn’t bail their opponents out with a cheap foul late in the clock.
The Thunder is also committed to not fouling early in quarters. Once a team gets into the bonus, that puts an immense level of pressure on the defense and allows the opposition to score with the clock stopped. On many occasions this season, the Thunder got into the penalty and was taking free throws 3-to-4 game minutes before their opponent was able to draw five team fouls and get to the stripe.
“If you can start off a quarter really well in terms of the team number of fouls, you're generally going to keep teams off the free throw line,” Donovan noted.
Individually, from a team standpoint and on the strategic level, the Thunder has been intentional about not giving away free points during the 2019-20 campaign. While it’s still a work in progress down in Orlando to keep the hands off, the Thunder only has to look at its blueprint from the first 64 games to be touch-free in the re-start.