The Thunder’s last two defensive possessions in the 2019-20 season came inside the final 10 seconds in Boston. Many fans of OKC still have the plays on repeat in their mind’s eye.
Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder trapped Kemba Walker in the backcourt, combining communication, veteran savvy, in-game collaboration and instincts to get a steal and go-ahead score. On Boston’s final possession, Paul buckled in, sat down in a stance and braced himself against Jayson Tatum’s size and length. The Thunder point guard forced Tatum into a contested fall-away jumper that missed short. Intelligence and force of will were hallmarks of the Thunder defense all season long and were embodied in those two plays.
Come August 1, when the Thunder finally gets back on the court to play what would have been its next game — against the Utah Jazz — that nearly tipped off on March 11, three and a half months will have flown off the calendar. That’s 14 weeks that this Thunder squad has had to maintain some semblance of connection off the floor without the chance to stay sharp on it.
As the Thunder gets together for a week of workouts in Oklahoma City before taking off for Orlando after the Fourth of July weekend, there will be an opportunity to re-invest in what Head Coach Billy Donovan laid out at the very beginning of the season. A focus on getting defensive stops as a five-man unit, tied on a string through all 24 seconds of the shot clock, will be vital as the re-seeding games commence.
“That’s got to be our goal,” Donovan said back in October. “To establish an identity defensively.”
During the 64 games the Thunder played in the halted regular season, the team ranked in the Top 10 in a variety of defensive categories: 1st in opponent fast break points (10.5 per game), 1st in opponent free throw attempts (18.6 per game), 3rd in fouls (18.8 per game), 4th in contested 2-pointers forced (40.4), 5th in loose balls recovered on defense (54.0%), 5th in opponent assists (23.1 per game), 6th in three-point defense (34.4% allowed) and 9th in defensive rating (108.4 points per 100 possessions).
Despite beginning the year with a roster filled with six new players that saw significant minutes in the rotation, the Thunder hung in there with opponents as it found its footing on the defensive end. Despite going 3-4 in its first seven games, the Thunder held six of those opponents to 104 points or fewer.
One of the reasons why the Thunder’s defense worked as well as it did this year is the dialogue that was happening on the floor. Center Steven Adams, as the defensive anchor, is always jabbering, shouting “push”, “weak” or “red” in his signature Kiwi accent to the guards who are about to work around a screen from the opposition’s big man. The talk flies around the floor though, as veteran Chris Paul, a 9-Time All-Defensive Team selection, helps lead the way by encouraging everyone on the floor to keep the chatter going.
“First and foremost, we gotta communicate,” said Paul’s protégé and buddy, second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, early in the season.
The reason all that talking is necessary is that a good NBA defense like the Thunder’s needs to be able to switch up their coverages and play multiple different ways throughout a game. This year, Donovan has directed his team to play in a “drop” coverage a bit more than it has in past seasons. In that situation, OKC’s center hangs back in the lane when defending a pick and roll, protecting the rim while the guard hustles around the screen to get back in front of the ball.
A blitz coverage is where the Thunder’s center and guard trap the ball-handler, meaning the other three Thunder defenders need to cover four opponents for a moment or two. Any time there’s a double-team happening, all five defenders must be tied together, both physically and verbally. Each opposing ball-handler, each opposing screener and the specific teammates they have around them determine the type of coverage the Thunder wants to be in on each possession. It’s essential that all five of OKC’s guys are on the same page to make those split-second decisions.
“So much of the NBA is based on personnel — who’s in the actions, who’s in screening actions, who’s in pick-and-roll — for what you want to do,” Donovan explained.
“It's good to have options,” Adams noted. “A drop coverage is kind of just two engaged fully to defend the pick and roll. If it's a blitz coverage, it's all five. It's like when you double in the post, it's a five-man thing. It's important to keep sharp.”
The cerebral part of the game is crucial. That’s why the Thunder spends hours in the film room, on their laptops on the plane or just watching games on their couch to wind down.
“On defense a lot of it comes from just studying the game,” said Paul, who watches other NBA contests every night. “You can’t just have the athleticism. You can be as tall as you want to and all that stuff but guys that know how to play are going to manipulate the game on you so the only way you can get that knowledge is to study it and watch games.”
Where the rubber truly hits the road though to make a defense hum is being willing to give, and take, a bit of a bruising. While big men like Adams and Nerlens Noel are often charged with battling opposing centers for rebounds, it’s the guards who must ice their shoulders after games. Rushing over the top, underneath or sometimes through screening actions dozens of times a game results in collisions. Then comes actually bodying up a ball-handler who is trying to drive the lane and taking a charge when they beat their man to the spot.
“We are at our best when we are hitting first, and when we are on defense, dictating what they are going to do,” second-year guard Hamidou Diallo said. “When we let them dictate what they want to do, that’s not how we are taught, and that’s not the type of defensive team that we are.”
“You get hit on a screen 80 times but you still have to be able to do it the 81st time,” Diallo added.
One aspect of physical effort is being able to run the floor and get into position early. A defense that gets set early, as the Thunder’s does, is often way ahead of the action from both a mental and physical standpoint. Perhaps the main reason OKC’s defense has been so good this year is one of the numbers listed above: the Thunder ranks No. 1 in transition defense. In a league that is all about pushing the pace, playing in the open floor and shooting in the first six seconds of the shot clock, the Thunder’s defense forces opponents’ offense into a standstill.
“It's really all about effort and energy,” said rookie Darius Bazley, who has picked up a thing or two under the tutelage of his vets. “There are things like showing your hands and having straight up verticality, but if you give maximum effort and energy and you pay attention to the player you're going against, you should be good.”
Bazley can often be seen in a full sprint, leaving a corner on offense as soon as a shot goes up and firing down court to get into defensive position. His fellow rookie, Lu Dort, has learned to play from one end to the other too, learning exactly how from two of the league’s best. Both Paul and Schröder, like they did in Boston, have picked up opposing guards full court for large portions of their careers.
“I remember in training camp (Dort) was taking me half court and I was like ‘you got to go 94 feet to earn your playing time’,” Schröder grinned.
Down in Orlando, as the season restarts, it’s going to take 94 feet of defense, for 48 minutes, to cement not just the Thunder’s playoff positioning, but it’s chances as a threat to come out of the West.