Thunder Developing 'Winning Time'

In the past seven days, the Thunder has racked up four wins and all four have come in dramatic fashion. In fact, in the waning moments against Dallas, Memphis and Golden State the game was tied before the Thunder embarked on mini-scoring runs to close out the contests and in Portland the Thunder used overtime to come up with a victory. Throughout the season it seems that the Thunder has been working together to find success late in ballgames, and hopes to continue to improve in that area.

“I think the first thing is that we have pretty good personnel,” forward Nick Collison said. “We have one of the best closers in Kevin (Durant), a guy that, in a one-on-one situation, there are not a lot of guys who can stop him. Having a guy like that really helps. I think we’ve progressed to the point where down the stretch in games, defensively, we can be really good and raise our level and make it tough for that team to score.”

Personnel is one thing, but the Thunder has also been utilizing a combination of experience and different lineups to grow as a group- from taking care of late-game inbounds plays to help defense on final opponent possessions. For Head Coach Scott Brooks, there are a variety of combinations of players that can step up and fill in roles during the final minutes of games, depending on matchups and who has the hot hand.

“It helps having that luxury,” Brooks said. “Our guys have really worked hard at improving in a lot of areas of the game, but I think that’s an area that we’ve gotten better, but we can’t rest on it. Late game situations are always an area that every team has to improve upon, every player has to get better. We have three guys that can playmake for each other or the team, and then we have our share of bigs that can be thrown in there and do the job and do it at a very high level.”

From the standard starting five of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to reserves like James Harden, Collison, Daequan Cook, Reggie Jackson and Nazr Mohammed, the Thunder feels comfortable putting different groupings on the floor late in the game. Against Golden State, Cook saw time in the waning seconds, as did the duo of Collison and Ibaka, based on time and score situations. As these players gain more time on the court with one another, they hope to develop situational basketball skills as a collective unit.

“I think coach has a lot of faith in all the guys in our rotation, even the guys that aren’t in the rotation,” Collison said. “We have a lot of talent here and we have a lot of guys that are pretty smart basketball players too. I think he has faith in putting whoever out there depending on matchups.”

Those matchups are key because the Thunder players know their roles and are humble in how they do their jobs and work together on the court. Communication on defense and execution on offense can at times get lost in the shuffle when crowd noise reaches a fever pitch or the intensity of the moment makes a players’ heart beat louder than Rumble’s drum. The Thunder, however, try to keep it together in those moments.

“I think one thing about us, we stay cool,” Durant said. “We stay composed, we stay poised in those last minutes of the game… We know that if we miss shots we can come down and get a stop.”

So how does a team with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA have such a veteran-sounding mentality? According to Westbrook, it’s continuity and defensive focus. The Thunder prides itself on making stops on the defensive end and in recent contests, it’s been the on-ball pressure by Westbrook, help-side rotations from bigs like Perkins and boxing out on rebounds from the likes of Harden that have sealed victories. On top of that, Westbrook notes, these Thunder players have had a chance to grow together over the past few years and develop a rhythm of their own during crunch time, which is something they continue to work on.

“We’ve been in so many different situations since I’ve been here for the last three years,” Westbrook said. “We know how to close games now. We know it takes defense to close games.”