In the Thunder’s big road win in Portland — key both for the playoff chase as well as the team’s own psyche given that they hadn’t won in the Moda Center since 2014 — defense was once again necessary for success. And defense will always be key, because OKC simply isn’t a great offensive team, with a lower offensive efficiency rating than a year ago (top 10 last year, bottom third this year).
How then are the Thunder significantly better this year, with a margin of victory (MOV) second only to the Bucks? It isn’t just a better Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams on defense, pulling the defensive variable down instead of pushing the offensive one up. It’s also bench guys such as Nerlens Noel who, if not regularly adding to points scored, is certainly taking them away from other teams. And in a game where Adams and the Thunder PnR defense struggled early on to contain Jusuf Nurkic, Noel played a big part in making up the difference.
Here are four sequences where Nerlens took away scoring opportunities to give his team a shot to win a big divisional road showdown.
1. Reading the back door play
The Thunder were hurt a few times in the first half by the Blazers, particularly when the second units were going against each other. In this play, it was Dennis Schroder who got bit trying to stop a Seth Curry curl. Noel reads the pass at the perfect moment to snuff out what should have been an easy layup.
2. The one-two punch; punch one
The Thunder used a late 3rd quarter push to seize control, and once again it was the bench unit that helped make it happen.
In this first play, you can’t see the very beginning of the defensive set, but Noel originally starts on Meyers Leonard (aka “Stretch Bieber”) while Schroder is on Damian Lillard. Stretch sets the screen, with Noel and Schroder switching assignments. You can later see Schroder hand off Stretch to Paul George, who knows the Portland big man is strong but not particularly agile, and the quick body-up disrupts the timing just enough so the switch and brief opening is not enough for Lillard to deliver the post-pass.
The challenge though is now the 7-foot Noel has to stay in front of Lillard. But because Noel knows he’s got someone switching onto the post guy who Dame is looking for, Noel effectively uses his length to create a one man trap on Lillard. Lillard still tries to force the entry pass, but Noel is too quick, steals the ball, and feeds Russell Westbrook for the slam.
3. Punch two; punch out
The very next offensive sequence, again Schroder and Noel have to deal with the high screen by Stretch. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing, Schroder didn’t play this exactly like he was supposed to, because by trying to fight over the screen 40 feet from the rim, he could have easily picked himself off if Lillard had done a hard crossover back to the middle of the court. And it’s not like Biebs would have been quick enough to fade to the 3-point line anyway.
Regardless, Noel hedges quickly, trying to force Lillard to the sideline where Noel knew he’d quickly run out of space. Lillard tries to get around Noel, and this sets up the long-armed, quick-handed Nerlens to reach down and jab the ball away from Lillard.
Schroder lucks out again as the ball is left sitting for him to scoop up. Portland commits a clear-path foul with under a minute to go in the 3rd, setting the stage for the climactic 4th.
4. More like Evan Turn-away, amirite?
One last time, Noel is defending the 1-5 pick and roll, this time with Westbrook. Russ and Noel switch again, but this time Noel doesn’t push up quick enough, and Evan Turner hits the corner with a path to the rim and no defensive help to rotate.
In another key sequence, Noel doesn’t give up on the play, moves his feet instead of reaching, knowing that his own length and verticality can help him recover. Noel times the block perfectly and Turner never has a chance.
On the other end (after clip ends), Noel ran the floor to get fouled on a lob play. His two free throws deliver a critical 4-point swing in a game that ended as a single possession outcome.
I’ve often cited Noel’s play in my various recaps. And yes, he still has some areas for improvement to help keep him on the court more. But plays like these, including against one of the best playmakers in the league in Lillard, are a major reason more than a few are clamoring for Noel to receive more playing time. His defensive prowess and ability to impact the final outcome merits it.