Since the All-Star break, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been falling apart defensively. Don't be fooled by the explosions of Jodie Meeks and Gerald Green in the last two games – the Thunder haven't been handling any of their recent opponents with their typical defensive efficiency, and the Suns game was just the highlighted example.
Despite a reputation as one of the league's best defensive teams, the Thunder have had a 108.3 defensive rating in the eight games since returning from the break. That ranks them 21st in the league in that time frame, a far fall from the grace of their number three ranking prior when they had a 99.3 defensive rating. And no, holding the Philadelphia 76ers to 34.0% shooting from the field doesn't provide too much relief.
Why the drop-off? Well, plenty of things have changed since the All-Star break for the Thunder. Russell Westbrook returned from injury. Kendrick Perkins suffered an injury that might keep him out until the playoffs in the first game after the break. About a week after, Thabo Sefolosha joined Perkins with an injury of a similar timetable.
The loss of two key defensive cogs as well as the re-integration of another could've tampered with the equilibrium of the Thunder's defensive system. This team is one well-equipped to deal with injuries, but three core changes to the same system in quick succession will throw any team off-balance.
However, you have to wonder: is it all injuries? Watching the games, the flaws are right there for the untrained eye to see. Open spot-up jumpers are available for the taking against the Thunder defense, and at times, it even feels like energy is missing from the effort. A bunch of issues are visibly plaguing a should-be elite defense, and it's costing them to the tune of a 3-5 record since the All-Star break.
Closing out on outside shooters
In response to a defensive stat showed to him about a week and a half ago, Scott Brooks shrugged it off and said, "I do focus exclusively on defensive field goal percentage and last I checked a couple games ago, we were second in the league."
According to NBA.com, the Thunder are bottom-six in opponent field goal percentage from 8-to-16 feet, 16-to-24 feet, and 24+ feet since the All-Star break. In that time frame, they're allowing the highest shooting percentage of any team from the 24+ feet range.
The stat that was shown to Scott Brooks was percentage of opponent jumpshots contested, in which the Thunder were dead last at the time.
The Thunder employ a sink-and-recover scheme that makes use of their length and athleticism by playing their guys close to the paint and having them close out hard on passes out to shooters. For most of the season, that's worked pretty well. However, opponents are suddenly starting to make jumpers, and at a worrying percentage. They're getting open looks off of simple pick-and-rolls or drive-and-kick plays, and making the Thunder pay for sinking so deeply into the paint.
Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford combined for 11 threes against the Thunder on February 23rd, and for them, it was this easy.
The Thunder ICE the pick-and-roll on the baseline, and bring an extra defender over to contain the screener. To do that, they have to make sure the other three players are accounted for. Nope. The pass goes to Matt Barnes, and he gets his fifth three of the game.
It sounds like a pretty fundamental of bringing over extra defenders, to make sure the weak-side shooters elsewhere are contained. However, the Thunder just haven't been attentive enough. When the pass goes out to shooters, they're either late to recover or barely get there in time. If a rotation is necessary, that rotation comes late and it's a breakdown that can be further exposed with an extra pass. Sometimes, "barely getting there in time" gets the job done because of the Thunder's length, but too often it's not good enough. Outside shooters are burning the Thunder simply because after they "sink", they can't "recover" well enough to finish the job.
Another problem bred from this is that when the Thunder defenders recover, they have to do so at full speed. That means spot-up guys can beat them with a pump fake or by putting the ball on the floor. For his 22nd and 23rd points of his 42-point explosion on March 9th, Jodie Meeks had Westbrook running out at him too quickly to change direction and keep up with the dribble drive to the rim.
A question that begs to be asked is how much does the loss of Thabo Sefolosha hurt? He's one of the league's best at recovering out to shooters. Perry Jones III, Jeremy Lamb and Caron Butler have their merits, but they don't close out nearly as well as Sefolosha does. PJ3's sheer length (he's freaking 6'11" and starting at the 2!) bails him a lot of times, but he does get mixed up in weak-side recoveries and rotations. Lamb has long arms too, but he's a bit less attentive than he needs to be. Butler is the most aware of the three, but he's also slow and often doesn't get to shots in time. The three of them, in comparison to Sefolosha's body of work, resemble crude patchwork more than anything. They're fine overall, but you can easily poke holes to sink them. Losing Sefolosha hurts more than falling back to them.
Because of how often it crops up in games, the Thunder's struggles with closing out to shooters has really been problematic. It's priority number one to fix right now, because where the Thunder are getting killed is out on the perimeter. Making sure outside shooters are covered when they get the ball is a core aspect of Scott Brooks' defense, so don't expect him to let it just stagnate at this level.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant's effort
It might be easier to swallow knowing all that they're doing on the offensive side of things, but the fact remains: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have often looked unengaged on defense, and that lack of energy is starting to look pretty obvious. It's just another sign of the team's overall play on defense.
Let's start with Westbrook, since he's the one with the interesting narrative of returning from injury. There's no telling how much of his poor play has been due to some type of physical limitation versus taking his foot off the pedal mentally, and I'd argue it's a bit of both. He's always been an intense competitor, so it's hard to blame him for a lack of effort.
That said, if there's any situation where he checks himself out mentally, it's when defensively when Westbrook's at the back of the play. To go with that, it doesn't look like his lateral quickness is quite back to normal yet. When he's struggling to go around picks and having to call for switches often, it definitely looks like he's not physically right. He'll uncharacteristically end up behind plays and allow scores.
Here, Russ is slow to go over the pick and it leaves Kyrie Irving able to attack a showing Serge Ibaka with a head of steam. Steven Adams goaltends the layup, but even if he hadn't, you can see the effect of Westbrook being left at the back of the play as Tristan Thompson had a putback opportunity after Kyrie drew the help.
Though it's most exploitable through pick-and-rolls, Westbrook has been caught slow-footed and also inattentive in other situations on and off the ball. This includes when he's guarding someone on the weak side and has to make a rotation or a recovery to an open shooter. Sometimes, he's found taking shortcuts (I've never seen a hand-off misplayed this poorly), a mental reprieve for himself that's easy to expose.
Gambling for steals, a habit of Westbrook's for a long time now, is one of those shortcuts and sometimes he gets beaten while reaching. Against the Suns, I counted him reaching around the ball-handler's back to strip the ball at least four times. It worked twice. Even as the rest of Westborok's defensive play has dropped off, the steals have remained constant and the turnovers he causes might be the most redeeming aspect of his defense recently. I guess you shrug that off and say it's a situation where you #LETWESTBROOKBEWESTBROOK. There are more worrying concerns, like him regaining his lateral quickness defensively.
Believe it or not, I'm even more frustrated by Durant's defense. He's been doing the heavy-lifting for this team all season long and still is, so if anyone has an alibi for not showing up defensively, it's him. Still, it's never easy to watch any player go through defensive possessions so half-heartedly as Durant's been doing recently. The length can make him an annoying defender even at 50% effort, but when you have situations like this, length is pretty useless.
In that situation, Durant was sucked in on a P.J. Tucker drive that took him off of Gerald Green in the corner with about four seconds left on the clock. If you took a look at the play, you can see that PJ3 and Adams had Tucker's drive well-covered before Durant got there, and KD was just hanging out around the lane with his back turned to Green. This attempt came before Green's six threes in the third and he actually missed it, but there's really no sense in leaving him open in this situation.
If there's anyone leading the charge for lazy close-outs, it's Durant. Even with his length, he's made a habit out of giving shooters more room than he should even with his length and the Thunder are starting to pay for it. What's most strikingly visible is how he stands on plays. I've seen him with his knees straight and out a defensive stance too many times. He'll bite on pump fakes and rotate late. It makes him look disinterested in playing defense, and even though he has lightning-quick movements, the first thing you're taught about playing defense is to have your knees bent so you can react right away.
So no, I don't really want to know what's happening here when Durant's check, James Anderson, catches the ball and gets by him with practically no effort at all.
It's not just close-outs. Durant has been caught flat-footed in one-on-one situations, or in cases like this one where Durant reacts late to Luol Deng slipping the screen (straight knees!), falls for Deng's pump fake and ends up giving up a layup.
In all fairness, I'm probably being harder on Durant than he deserves. For all of the strikingly bad moments he's had, he's had moments of stingy one-on-one defense and well-contested close-outs with his length. Durant has generally picked his spots with which players to slack off against, allowing players like Tayshaun Prince significant space to shoot while being a bit more wary of someone like Luol Deng. I was originally going to use this screenshot instead of the Gerald Green one from above, but I gave KD a pass since Gerald Henderson's a sub-.300 shooter from downtown this season.
Still, it's not easy to play defense when one of your players starts cutting himself slack. When the Thunder have to contend with both Westbrook playing slow and taking shortcuts as well as Durant giving up space and often caught out of a defensive stance, it makes it difficult for the rest of the team to cope. These two are supposed to the team's leaders, and it's a bad look when they can't at least put on a facade of defensive intensity for their team.
The Thunder's pick-and-roll defense has been spotty recently, and much of it is because of Westbrook's slow lateral movement and (to a lesser extent) Durant's straight knees. The Thunder have generally gone with a hard show rather than a true trap in recent games and it hasn't worked out well. Ball-handlers have had little trouble zipping past Thunder bigs, partly because they rarely want to commit to a full switch, and if Westbrook or Durant can't get around the pick in time, it's a clear path to the rim for opposing ball-handlers. The Kyrie Irving GIF from earlier shows as much.
If a ball-handler goes towards the sideline, Steven Adams is great at hedging and taking away space. After that, however, there's no resistance left.
Going under or trapping the pick-and-roll hasn't worked either. The first option either concedes a jumper or forces a switch when the roll man drops early to draw a Westbrook taking too long to get by, while the second option has led to abuse of the Thunder's wonky defensive rotations against drive-and-kicks or just an open shot for the screener popping out. You always hear about teams allowing midrange jumpers out of the pick-and-roll as a "pick your poison" option, but the Thunder are allowing high-percentage midrange opportunities to compliment all of the threes they give up.
On the bright side, the last line of defense in the paint has protected the rim well. Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and even Hasheem Thabeet have done a great job of snuffing out unchallenged drives to the rim. Unchallenged dribble penetration out of a pick-and-roll can breed other ways to attack than just the initial drive to the rim, but at least the Thunder bigs are shutting down that initial drive and making opponents continue to work for the shot they want, all while allowing their teammates to get back into the swing of things. So right now, the key is just to make sure those outside shooters are being challenged.
If there's a single trend running through these issues, it's a lack of mental engagement. The Thunder often look like they're just going through the motions defensively, especially individual players when they're on the weak side. If they can't pick up a shooter when he catches the ball, they're not going to have a fun time being roasted by the likes of Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks. Westbrook and Durant absolutely have to be more locked in.
Defense was the concern from the start when the Thunder learned they'd be without Sefolosha and Perkins for possibly until the end of the season. For eight games, those concerns have been realized. Now, it's time for Scott Brooks to get on his players and hold them accountable for their mental mistakes. Even without two cogs missing, this team has the talent to be better on defense than they've been over the past two weeks.