The OKC Thunder was much maligned for Sunday night's defensive debacle against a potent New York Knicks offense. The Knicks shot 49% from the field, had 15 made 3-pointers, and dropped 125 points on the Thunder's home court. What was wrong with OKC's defense?
Some pointed to shared confusion caused by the Knicks execution of its pick & roll offense. Too many times, the Thunder players found themselves out of position, guarding the wrong man which allowed the Knicks to roll to the basket for an easy shot or leaving shooters open for uncontested 3-point shots. Others felt it was just a lack of focus, questioning if the Thunder had simply abandoned the fundamentals of basketball: staying between the man and the goal, blocking out, and rebounding the ball after missed shots.
Last night, against a surging Utah Jazz team, the Thunder understood that they would be challenged in many of the same ways they were challenged Sunday night against the Knicks. Utah is a team who likes to go inside for paint-points and who finds success crashing the boards. They have three bigs who each average more than 7 rebounds per game and collectively, score a large chunk of the team's points. Al Jefferson average 17.5 points per game while Paul Millsap average 17.1. Off the bench, Derrick Favors is averaging 9.5 per game. The Jazz entered the game shooting around 50%, but averaging about 40% against the Thunder this season. The last time these two teams met, on February 12 earlier this year, the Jazz took 21 more shots than the Thunder because of offensive rebounds.
So, how did the Thunder defense do against the Jazz this time? The Thunder came to play, and they brought a solid, lock-down defense with them. The Jazz likes to run multiple screens down low, springing Jefferson and Millsap for easy buckets, or they circle through the lane, looking for the open man under the goal. The Thunder was poised for whatever the Jazz threw at them, turning 17 turnovers into 16 Thunder points and holding Utah to 39% shooting from the field and 28% from behind the arc. The Thunder is 20-1 when they hold opponents under 40% from the field.
OKC also out-rebound the Jazz. On February 12th, Utah had 16 offensive rebounds. Last night, in Salt Lake City, the Jazz had 6 offensive rebounds while the Thunder had 10. OKC finished with 46 rebounds in all, Utah with 43. What contributed to this turnabout? According to Coach Brooks, mental toughness - making the correct play every time - was the key to their defense. Before the game, the coach laid out the game plan:
"We need to matchup with their bigs and get out to challenge every shot and block out."
Did Utah still get uncontested shots? Did Utah score points in the paint? Of course, they did. Utah pounded the ball inside as expected, and they kicked the ball out when the lanes were shut off. But the Thunder's defense was resillient and consistent. Each Thunder player had seemingly signed on the dotted line, buying into the concept of help defense and intensity.
They fought for inside positions, jumped the passing lanes for steals, got back on defense after possessions, and played sound, fundamental basketball. How long will it last? Thursday, the Thunder faces another potent offense who will challenge OKC to defend relentless perimeter shooting.
The defensive-minded Thunder move on to Oakland, California, to take on west coast rival, the Golden State Warriors. Last night, the Warriors shot 42.9% from the field, 41.7% from the free throw line, and scored 105 points against the Minnesota Timber Wolves. Golden State is currently holding on to the #6 spot in the Western Conference.