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The Thunder’s defense is winning games

Oklahoma City are a top-five team in Defensive Rating

NBA: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since November of last year, Oklahoma City are on a four game winning streak. The Thunder have played hard, executed well down the stretch of tight games and wins are starting to stack up. It is still early days in the season but the Thunder are currently #8 in the Western Conference.

I do not expect the Thunder to finish in the playoffs this season but the recent stretch of games have been impressive. Oklahoma City beat the Clippers comprehensively and then eked out a win against the Dallas Mavericks behind Isaiah Joe’s heroics. Last night, the Thunder outlasted an exciting Orlando Magic side.

The Thunder have not picked up four straight wins by playing weak opposition as they did this time last year; OKC have won against two teams who have legitimate title aspirations and a young team who have a similar sort of talent level.

The win against the Magic was hugely encouraging as it showed that the Thunder are professional enough to put away wins against bad teams. Oklahoma City cranked up the intensity in the fourth quarter and won comfortably despite Giddey and Dort having rough nights from the field.

These four wins have come from the Thunder’s excellent, stingy defense. Oklahoma City are currently ranked fifth in the NBA in Defensive Rating. The team are only allowing 106.7 per 100 possessions. It is impressive work by a team who have an average age of 23 years old. The strong defense stems from a few different factors.

Coach Daigneault is playing the right personnel for each match-up:

It is the norm for NBA coaches to settle into a rotation at the start of the year and then tweak around the edges. There are clear benefits to this approach, units have time to build chemistry and cohesion is developed in specific lineups. We have seen coaches like Nick Nurse and Steve Kerr tinker with their teams for certain playoff match-ups but it is rare to see a coach change the rotation every single night during the regular season.

Coach Daigneault is doing so right now and it seems to be working for the Thunder. In the first win against the Clippers, Daigneault played Robinson-Earl and Wiggins in the front-court. Out of context, that pairing seems very odd and like a telegraphed attempt at tanking. When you consider the opposition, Daigneault made the perfect decision.

The LA Clippers are a jump-shooting team who rarely go all the way to the basket. The Thunder recognised that they did not need a huge amount of size at center, Ivica Zubac was LA’s only traditional big and he is a low-usage option. Oklahoma City could afford to go small and play someone like Wiggins who disrupts play by stealing the ball off the opposition.

In the game against the Mavericks, Daigneault again shuffled the lineup. He brought Pokusevski into to start at center. Pokusevski playing center gave the Thunder length to contest shots from the weak-side and force Luka into making tough decisions.

The Mavericks choose to stagger Luka and Christian Wood which means that they have an offense that is usually driven by one player. Slowing Luka down is a huge part of beating Dallas and Daigneault’s lineups put the Thunder in good position to do so. He used Dort to bother Doncic and then had Bazley roaming around, making good help rotations. Doncic got a 30-point triple-double but his shooting was woeful on the night.

In the Magic game, Daigneault played JRE at the 5 to anchor the defense and match Orlando’s size. It would have been folly to start Bazley or Pokusevski against a team who have physical size at every single position.

Daigneault is shifting personnel around to meet the team’s needs and it is working incredibly well.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken a leap

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was an adequate defensive player during his first three years in Oklahoma. His contributions were solid but his gas tank was not quite big enough to sustain engaged, concerted two-way play on both ends of the floor.

We did see Shai grow as a help defender last season. Coach Daigneault loved to have Shai rotating middle from the strong-side as Gilgeous-Alexander’s quick hands often caused breakdowns in the opponent’s offense. He was disruptive and you could start to see the sort of defender Gilgeous-Alexander could be if he fully locked in.

It is worth noting that SGA was pretty mediocre at the point of attack last season. He did not always fight hard over screens and could be too slow when fighting to close distance on his target.

This season has been very different; Gilgeous-Alexander has been an excellent defender out on the perimeter. His length and quickness allow him to battle through screens without being separated from his man. Shai’s fundamentals are not perfect, I would like to see slide his feet more, but he is athletic enough to keep up with anyone.

He has also been proficient at using his quickness to jump into passing lanes and pick off errant passes. Shai is currently averaging 2.5 steals per game and his pressure is allowing the Thunder to turn teams over. Oklahoma City are forcing mistakes and then getting out in transition for easy scores.

Oklahoma City are ranked fourth in the NBA for points in transition which is a marked difference to last season when the Thunder were middle of the pack. Turning teams over is a virtuous cycle; the Thunder get easy baskets and the other team have a smaller number of offensive possessions.

Gilgeous-Alexander being so disruptive changes how the Thunder defend. Last season, OKC contained opposing teams and ran the clock down as much as they could on defense. The Thunder now have the option to be more aggressive when it comes to making the most of errors by the other team.

Providing that the Thunder can continue to play defense like this, they will have an opportunity to win most nights as Oklahoma City will not need to be perfect offensively and score 130 points just to win a game. By holding opponents to around 106 points, the Thunder can afford to have a rough night and still win.

Oklahoma City’s long-term future gets even better when Chet is added to the mix next season. Holmgren’s rim protection might elevate the Thunder into being an elite defense that can stop anyone on any given tonight. Defense is the way forward for OKC.