The bones of a good defense

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com

There were plenty of scoring plays for the Thunder last season on defense – from Lu Dort’s sweep of De’Aaron Fox to setting up his game-winning layup at Nikola Jokić’s rookie Tre Mann’s strip to Darius Bazley’s blocks on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert at the rim.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of additional defensive plays that were invisible to most observers, but treasured by Thunder coaches and players. Players turned as low man to clog paint, called covers and delivered in “moment of truth” situations like rookie Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s snatch block on a so-called Troy dunk Brown Jr.

More importantly, the Thunder executed the mental side of the game, such as when they patiently trapped the LA Clippers in the backcourt to force the ball into the hands of a poor free throw shooter in the final seconds of a game at the Paycom Center. Two Clippers misses on the line kept the Thunder within striking distance for a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander winner 3 on final possession.

“We have the basics of a very good defense,” said general manager and executive vice-president Sam Presti, “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be a good defensive team next year. We have to go back again. to the drawing board and rebuild the defense the same way we did. We have shown that we are very capable of being an effective team at this end of the field, and that is difficult to do with a young team.

“We’re starting to develop the identity of a pretty tough and competitive team, despite our youth,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault, who was quick to address those core values ​​in the game. keeping the details for the cinema sessions. “It comes from a shared commitment to certain similar habits and fundamentals that are expressions of tenacity.”

(Photo by Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Presti said next season the Thunder need to come back to a more physical group. As Daigneault noted throughout the season, much of the quality of defense is attributed to effort and tenacity, but there were some essential elements to that defensive skeleton.

OKC BACK IN TRANSITION

For the NBA’s youngest team, whose average age was still below 24 on the final day of the season, there was so much to learn in training camp and in the early months of the season. Keeping pick-and-rolls alone, there’s drop cover, switch, screen-level climb, and blitz. There’s zone defense and full-court pressure and doubling up post-ups. They all weigh to varying degrees on different players, and newcomers must not only learn them all, but execute them on every possession to be a strong team defender.

“It’s really locked in, trying to perfect every little detail that we can do,” Thunder defensive ace Lu Dort said. That’s something we put a lot of emphasis on in a locker room – playing really hard and being competitive.

(Photo by Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

An NBA team can’t even get into those covers if the opposing team is in transition, but luckily the Thunder haven’t found themselves chasing play this year. In fact, the Thunder ranked second in quick break points allowed at just 10.7 per game and allowed their opponent zero quick break points in three games last year – at Utah and twice. inside the Paycom Center, against Philadelphia and Dallas. A crucial aspect of transition defense for players is simply picking a man rather than scrambling to identify their specific defensive assignment. That job is made easier by a flexible roster, and given that the Thunder started two point guards at 6ft 6in or taller in Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, most nights the team was well positioned to come back, prepare and struggle.

“We’re both bigger for the point guard position,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of himself and fellow backcourt mate Giddey. “It just allows us to be more versatile in defence.”

Once the Thunder settled into the half court, their priority was to protect the paintwork, and specifically the rim. The Thunder gave up both the sixth-fewest field goal attempts and the 10th-lowest field goal percentage in the restricted area all season. By being in the assist position early on and not fearing high-impact moments, the Thunder were able to eliminate those dynamic plays most importantly by getting their noses in there with verticality on lay-up tries, diving to the ground to loose balls and being disjointed. in mismatches.

(Jonathan Bachman | NBAE via Getty Images)

“Sometimes when the team scores two points, it’s not like two points, you know?” said forward Darius Bazley, who ranked 35th in the NBA in blocks per game, racking up 70 total hits to go with 56 interceptions.

For much of the season, the Thunder hovered near the top 10 in defensive efficiency and field goal percentage allowed, finishing 13th in that category at 45.8%. While defending certainly involves all five men working together on a string, there is also a level of individual pride that is required both at the point of attack and off the ball. Given the Thunder didn’t have the most size on the floor each night, Daigneault said the team had proven their commitment to protecting the rim as a number one priority was a good strategy moving forward. .

“The coaches do a good job of holding us accountable to keep our yard,” veteran Kenrich Williams said. “Plus, we’re doing a good job of holding each other accountable and supporting each other.”

(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

When opponents were blocked trying to get into the paint, they kicked shooters out to the perimeter. Primed and ready to go the extra mile to contest shots, the Thunder rushed in and made opponents think twice before taking the shot, passing or putting the ball on the ground.

The Thunder’s title defending 3-point line came in the second half of the season, when they staged a 24-game streak holding opponents within 40% to 3, the longest streak in history. from OKC and the second longest streak in the NBA. since the establishment of the 3-point line.

In addition to that streak, the Thunder have kept opponents within 40% shooting in 3 of 60 of their 82 total games this year, and the main reason was that they made second and third efforts to put the hand to shooters face. For the season, Thunder’s opponents shot just 33.8 percent over break 3, the fifth-lowest mark in the NBA.

(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Not only did the Thunder lead the league in contested 3-point attempts (25.9 per game, on 66.9% of opponents’ attempts), but they also ranked first in total field goal attempts contested. per game (57.3).

“Anyone can do open shots. We know that and we are focused on helping,” Mann noted. “The numbers prove guys are making open shots and those numbers go down once they get a hand in the face.”

OKC LIMITED FAULTS AND REBOUNDS

“From an efficiency standpoint, there’s really nothing more efficient in the NBA than a free throw trip,” Daigneault said, describing one of the last keys to finishing a defensive possession. “We want to be physical, of course, but we want to limit mistakes that are not expensive.”

By getting back into transition and being an early helper in the half court, the Thunder kept themselves from getting into disadvantageous situations where the only play left to prevent a field goal was a foul. As the Thunder contested the shots, he was also sure not to make risky choices that would result in fouls. For the season, the Thunder ranked fourth in fouls per game and opponent’s free throw attempts.

The final touch to any defensive possession is a strong rebound. Thanks to all those missed shots forced by the Thunder, he ranked fifth in the NBA in defensive rebounds and sixth in total rebounds per game, with 10 games all season with a double-digit rebounding advantage. Above all, the Thunder honed the rebounding instincts of their younger generation of players, as the team’s rookies racked up 1,348 rebounds throughout the season, the most in the NBA for the year and third most of the league since the 2000-2001 season.

(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

Not only did all of these panels help seal defensive saves, but they also acted as a propellant for the Thunder’s offensive attack at the other end of the floor.

“If we get some rebounds, we’re able to push things the other way and get more upside,” veteran center Mike Muscala said. “If we constantly take the ball out of the basket, the defense is already in place. To run errands, we need to get stops.

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