Lu Dort
(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

The Bones of a Good Defense

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com

There were plenty of highlight plays for the Thunder this past season on defense – from Lu Dort’s swipe of De’Aaron Fox to set up his game-winning layup to rookie Tre Mann’s strip of Nikola Jokić to Darius Bazley blocks on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert at the rim.

There were hundreds, perhaps thousands more defensive plays that were invisible to most observers, but preciously revered by the Thunder coaches and players. Players rotated over as the low man to plug up the paint, called out coverages and delivered in “moment of truth” situations like rookie Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s snatch block on a would-be dunk by Troy Brown Jr.

Even more importantly, the Thunder executed the mental side of the game, like when it patiently trapped the LA Clippers in the backcourt to force the ball into the hands of a poor free throw shooter in the waning seconds of a game at Paycom Center. Two Clippers misses at the line kept the Thunder in striking distance for a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander game-winning 3 on the final possession.

“We have the bones of a very good defense,” Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti said, “But that doesn't mean we're going to be a good defensive team next year. We have to go back to the drawing board again and rebuild the defense the same way we did. We demonstrated that we're very capable of being an efficient team on that end of the floor, and that's hard to do with a young team.”

“We're starting to develop an identity of a pretty tough, competitive team, despite being younger,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault, who was quick to address those core values in-game, saving the details for film sessions. “That comes from a shared commitment to certain like habits and fundamentals that are expressions of toughness.”

(Photo by Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Presti stated that next season the Thunder needs to come back a more physical group. As Daigneault noted throughout the season, so much of quality defense is attributed to effort and toughness, but there were some core elements to that defensive skeleton.

OKC GOT BACK IN TRANSITION

For the youngest team in the NBA, whose average age was still under 24 years on the final day of the season, there was so much to learn in training camp and in the first few months of the season. In guarding pick-and-rolls alone, there’s drop coverage, switching, getting up to the level of the screen and blitzing. There’s zone defense and full court pressure and doubling on post ups. They’re all taxing to different degrees on different players, and newcomers have to not only learn them all, but execute them on every possession to be a strong team defender.

“It’s really being locked in, trying to perfect every little detail that we can do,” said Thunder defensive ace Lu Dort. That's one thing that we emphasize a lot in a locker room - just really playing hard and competing.”

(Photo by Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

An NBA squad can’t even get into those coverages if the opposing team is out and running in transition, but fortunately the Thunder didn’t find themselves chasing the play much this year. In fact, the Thunder ranked second in fast break points allowed at just 10.7 per game and allowed zero fast break points to their opposition in three games last year – at Utah and twice inside Paycom Center, against Philadelphia and Dallas. A crucial aspect of transition defense for players is to simply pick up a man rather than scrambling to identify their specific defensive assignment. That job is made easier with a flexible lineup, and given the Thunder started two point guards at 6-foot-6 or taller in Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, most nights the team was well-positioned to get back, get set and scramble.

“Both of us are taller for the point guard position,” said Gilgeous-Alexander of himself and his backcourt mate Giddey. “That just allows us to be more versatile on defense.”

OKC PROTECTED THE PAINT

Once the Thunder got set in the half court, its priority was on protecting the paint, and specifically, the rim. The Thunder gave up both the sixth fewest field goal attempts and the 10th lowest field goal percentage in the restricted area all season. By being early in help position and not shying away from high impact moments, the Thunder was mostly able to take away those momentum-swinging plays by sticking their nose in there with verticality on layup tries, diving on the floor for loose balls and being scrappy in mismatches.

(Jonathan Bachman | NBAE via Getty Images)

“Sometimes when the team scores two points it isn’t just like two points, you know?” said forward Darius Bazley, who ranked 35th in the NBA in blocks per game, accumulating 70 total swats to go with 56 steals.

For much of the season, the Thunder hovered near the top 10 in defensive efficiency and field goal percentage allowed, finishing 13th in that category at 45.8 percent. While defense certainly involves all five men working together on a string, there’s also a level of individual pride that is required both at the point of attack and off the ball. Since the Thunder didn’t have the most size on the floor each night, Daigneault said the team proved that its commitment to protecting the rim as priority number one is a sound strategy moving forward. 

“The coaches do a good job of holding us accountable to guard our yard,” said veteran Kenrich Williams. “As well, we do a good job of holding each other accountable and just having each other's back.”

(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

OKC CONTESTED 3’s

When opponents were stymied trying to get into the paint, they kicked out to shooters on the perimeter. Primed and ready to make the extra effort to contest shots, the Thunder rushed out and made opponents think twice about whether to launch the shot, pass or put the ball on the ground.

The Thunder’s headline stretch defending the 3-point line came in the second half of the season, when it put together a streak of 24 straight games holding opponents to under 40 percent from 3, the longest streak in OKC history and the NBA’s second longest streak since the 3-point line was implemented.

On top of that streak, the Thunder held opponents to under 40-percent shooting from 3 in 60 of its 82 total games this year, and the core reason was that it made second and third efforts to get a hand in shooters’ faces. For the season, Thunder opponents shot just 33.8 percent on above the break 3s, the fifth-lowest mark in the NBA.

(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Not only did the Thunder lead the league in contested 3-point attempts (25.9 per game, on 66.9 percent of opponents’ attempts), it also ranked first in total contested field goal attempts per game (57.3).

“Everybody can make open shots. We know that, and we stress getting a hand out,” noted Mann. “The numbers prove that guys make open shots and those numbers go down once they have a hand in their face.”

OKC LIMITED FOULS & REBOUNDED

“From an efficiency standpoint, there's really nothing more efficient in the NBA than a free-throw trip,” said Daigneault, outlining one of the final keys to finishing off a defensive possession. “We want to be physical, obviously, but we want to limit fouls that are cheap.”

By getting back in transition and being early in help in the half court, the Thunder prevented itself from being in disadvantageous situations, ones where the only play left to prevent a basket was a foul. As the Thunder contested shots it was also sure not to make risky choices that would result in fouls. For the season, the Thunder ranked fourth in both fouls per game and opponent free throw attempts. 

The final flourish to any defensive possession is a strong rebound. Thanks to all those missed shots the Thunder forced, it ranked fifth in the NBA in defensive rebounds and sixth in total rebounds per game, with 10 games throughout the season with a double-digit rebounding advantage. Crucially, the Thunder honed the rebounding instinct in its youngest generation of players, as the team’s rookies racked up 1,348 rebounds throughout the season, the most in the NBA for the year and the third most in the league since the 2000-2001 season.

(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Not only did all those boards help seal defensive stops, they also were propellant for the Thunder’s offensive attack on the other end of the floor.

“If we're getting rebounds, we're able to push it back the other way and get more of an advantage,” said veteran center Mike Muscala. “If we're constantly taking the ball out of basket, the defense is already set. In order to make runs, we have to get stops.”