Sinking back into the lane, eyes locked on the charging attacker in front of him, Al Horford reached his left hand out to the side, maintaining a presence with his defensive assignment. The charging Brooklyn Nets player, Joe Harris, bailed out of a midrange jumper as Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo chased him down from behind. Harris tried to improvise a pass to his teammate on the block, but Horford was there waiting, eyes still locked on the ball, right in position to intercept.
That type of sequence, heady positional defending aided by pure hustle and relentlessness, has been a hallmark of Thunder basketball for years, but as the organization embarks on its next chapter, reinforcing those habits is critical.
With a crop of new players, some of whom are still learning professional habits on the defensive end, Head Coach Mark Daigneault has started with the core curriculum of being in position early, communicating clearly and exerting maximum effort.
“I don't think it's a young/old thing. It's habitual,” said Daigneault. “It's a competitiveness and engagement thing.”
“(It’s) what Thunder basketball has always been about: being high-character guys, defending and playing the right way,” said veteran newcomer George Hill.
The starting point for any NBA defense is called a “shell.” That’s the set of principles with which the team approaches each possession and how it covers for one another once the opposition starts moving through its attack. Hustling back in transition to form a line of defenders is the primary step. Otherwise, any opponent that is coming down court and flowing straight into offense is going to be buzzing with confidence very quickly. Once the ball gets stopped initially, the Thunder wants to utilize a few different pick-and-roll coverage tactics like dropping its big man back into the lane, showing to slow the action and trapping to deter ballhandlers from finding the paint.
Without fouling, the Thunder must maintain a physical presence early in possessions to push opponents’ catches out further onto the floor. In one-on-one defense, each Thunder defender takes individual pride but is relying on the other four members of the team to have an eye on the ball. Just like Horford did against Brooklyn, Thunder players are ready in order to provide help when needed, particularly when elite NBA scorers are trying to isolate.
“Anytime you face those types of players, you understand that it's a team responsibility,” said Horford. “You're not going to be able to put one person on them and expect them to defend them. We're very aware that all of us, that whoever the five are on the floor, we're all responsible for those types of players. We have to make sure that you know we're making it tough for them, not giving them anything easy. And the only way we're going to have success is if we're all engaged in doing it as a team.”
"(It’s) what Thunder basketball has always been about: being high-character guys, defending and playing the right way."
Young players like Diallo, Lu Dort, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley all came into the season understanding there would be more asked of them, a greater responsibility on their plate. So far, the most prominent area that onus has shown up is with their individual defensive assignments to begin games. The culture of help defense that is being taught, however, aids those second- and third-year players in their transition to defending All-Stars each night.
“We’ve just got to make sure we're tight with our schemes. We’ve got to make sure we're tight in our help and we’ve got to make sure that we don't give them easy baskets, whether those be offensive rebounds or layups or we put them on the free-throw line,” said Daigneault.
“One of our keys as a defense has been to not let them get deep on offense and get where they want to go easily -- bump them off their routes, bump them off their cuts, blow up passing lanes,” said forward Isaiah Roby. “Just kind of turning up the pressure on the defensive end.”
The key to staying tied together defensively is the chatter on the floor. Talking to your teammates helps them have eyes in the back of their head, to make them aware of an incoming screener or upcoming action. Sometimes, a studious teammate may even be able to call out the opposing team’s impending play design moments before it happens. During the bubble games in Orlando, the Thunder was praised by opposing coaches for how loud the team’s communication was on the floor. Moving into the 2020-21 season, that again was a team focus.
“Really communicate and be loud, be vocal,” said second-year defensive ace Dort.
“It takes work, it takes discipline, and it takes sacrifice for each other and helping each other out,” said veteran center and defensive anchor Mike Muscala.
The foundation is being laid with the daily work the team puts into the practice floor, the film room and then, ultimately, the games themselves. Dort and Diallo have gushed about the impact that film study with Thunder assistant coaches has done for their understanding of the game defensively. While it is still early in the year, there has been one consistent statistical trend thus far that depicts hustle and effort – controllable facets every night.
The Thunder leads the NBA in the number of opposing field goals that it contests per game, including the number of 2-point shots that it contests. What that means is that the Thunder is flying out to the 3-point line, running opponents away from long-range, in-rhythm jumpers, then is making second and third efforts to get a hand up and challenge shots inside the arc. While the execution will not be perfect every night and opponents will likely go on scoring binges from time to time, the Thunder is playing with great energy.
“That's certainly an emphasis – with all the information that we have on shooting locations – one of the most predictive of whether or not a shot is efficient or not is the quality of that shot and how contested it is,” said Daigneault.
What the Thunder is aiming for is a sustainable defensive game plan that can be carried over regardless of the opposition’s talent level or personnel. One that is focused on effort and energy satisfies that requirement. From there, individuals can go out and make plays with their instincts and innate gifts. Bazley ran off a streak of nine consecutive games with a blocked shot, setting a career-high as he had the third-longest active streak at the time. Diallo racked up a career-high four steals against Brooklyn and for extended stretches, Dort has given high-level scorers like Donovan Mitchell and RJ Barrett headaches.
“We do have an athleticism and a feistiness to us that we'd like to tap into on the margins,” said Daigneault. “Over the course of 48 minutes in a game and how good the players are in the NBA, you can't get too crazy with your aggressiveness or the ball will stay ahead of you and you'll end up in rotation all night. But there's small ways that you can get your physicality into the game and that you can get your energy into the game.”
"We have to make sure that you know we're making it tough for them, not giving them anything easy. And the only way we're going to have success is if we're all engaged in doing it as a team"
As the team convenes before each game to go over strategies, assignments and coverages, the players understand that the specific opponent may dictate a unique approach. The most talented players in the league are often the most challenging to defend because of how unusual their physical attributes, athleticism or skill level make them.
“The principles still remain the same, but probably a little different each night just going up against different teams. Different players will have different coverages for different guys,” said Bazley.
Despite any nightly alterations that must be made, the Thunder can rely on the solid foundation it has implemented in the early going. The shell is the start, then it is simply reacting based on the preparation for each opponent and the trust in the four teammates next to you.