Despite the score, the Thunder used the second half of its blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday afternoon to truly work on some core areas that will be crucial moving forward.
Working in unison for all 24 seconds of the shot clock on defense forced the Lakers into difficult shots, and it was an important display of communication and cohesion as Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club tries to make progress on that end of the floor. Slowly but surely, the Thunder have crept up to eighth in defensive rating, allowing just 99.1 points per opponents’ 100 possessions.
On offense, the Thunder has been focusing in on allowing the ball to find the best shot, rather than forcing the issue. Playing for one another and creating advantage situations through sharp execution has been the recipe for success, as the Thunder’s offense is scoring 108.2 points per 100 possessions, second-best in the NBA. In Saturday’s victory, there was a clear emphasis to not play against the scoreboard, but rather against the team’s own standards for offensive excellence and selflessness.
“It’s a sign of maturity and really being focused on our level of play,” forward Nick Collison said. “Human nature can creep in but I think if your mind is in the right place and you’re realizing the bigger picture and us getting where we want to go, we’ll be able to focus.”
“It’s good to see because we realize that’s how we have to play to beat the best teams, particularly in the playoffs,” Collison continued. “It’s just maturity, learning and the longer we’re playing with each other, the better we’re going to get at sharing the ball.”
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One of the reasons for the Thunder’s success has been the pressure centers Enes Kanter and Steven Adams have put on opposing defenses. Kanter scored an efficient 19 points in 22 minutes against the Lakers on Saturday and is averaging 11.4 points on 55.8 percent shooting and 8.1 rebounds per game. Adams is contributing 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, but he’s also shooting a team-best 57.9 percent from the floor, thanks to his penchant for taking only the best possible shots – layups and dunks. In fact, 80.2 percent of Adams’ shots are coming from within four feet of the rim, and 82.6 of them have come without the New Zealand-native having to even take a dribble.
By rolling hard to the rim, Adams is forcing opponents to either take away lob attempts and passes to the rim or to cover up open shooters behind the three-point line. Choosing one of those options leaves the other open, which has been a huge component to the Thunder’s overall 47.2 percent shooting.
“The teams that are really hard to guard in this league are the ones where you have a big threat rolling down the middle and you’re really put in a bind,” Adams’ fellow big man, and mentor, Collison explained. “We’re trying to get in those situations on the offensive end as much as possible.”
Of course, every team in the NBA is trying to employ a similar strategy, which means that on most nights the Thunder is having to defend a variation on what Adams is able to provide. As the Thunder saw against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Tristan Thompson and will surely see on Monday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, defending the roll man is much more important than having one of your own.
“It’s a five-man job. The big has to be aware when the screen comes and we communicate it. The guard has to work to get over it,” Collison said. “Whatever we’re trying to do in our coverage, all five guys are going to be involved.”
Momentum can change hands with lobs for dunks, and good point guards can utilize a team’s over-eagerness to prevent the lob to generate wide open three-pointers for teammates. The pick-and-roll, along with a dive to the rim, is perhaps the most lethal play in the NBA, and for the Thunder it’s one of the highest priorities to stop on the defensive end.