Defensive Unity, Creative Offense Keys for Thunder

It’s a sign of a healthy organizational culture when even after a win, players, coaches and staff aren’t totally satisfied.

The Thunder took care of their home court on Friday night by beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 127-111 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but Head Coach Scott Brooks’ squad hit the practice floor right away Saturday morning to get back to work. Overall the team wasn’t thrilled with its defensive performance despite the 16-point victory.

That the team understands it isn’t a finished product and recognizes where and why it isn’t playing its best basketball is an indicator of a mature unit. The team has a clear goal for the upcoming weeks on the defensive end of the floor, and uses practice days like today to get better in that area.

“Just to play consistent defense for 48 minutes,” Brooks said. “One of the things that we strive to be is a 48-minute defending team. It takes a lot of commitment, it takes a lot of energy and effort. We will get there.”

It was really more of a development day at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center, where players had the chance to work on individual skills and conditioning. Even during those sessions the team gets in good work that will help it produce results on the floor. Brooks’ club, led by its defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins, still holds its opponents to only 43.3 percent shooting from the field, the third best mark in the league. Perkins, however, described how the communication, focus, intensity and coordination between every Thunder player needs to be at the highest levels to shrink that number even further.

“All five guys that are one the court have to be tied on a string,” Perkins said. “It only takes one guy to mess up the whole thing as far as our defensive concepts… We’ll take the win any day, but we just feel like we’re better than that and we’re all going to get better.”

Once the Thunder gets to exactly where it wants to be on the defensive end, it can align that staunch play with an offensive engine that’s humming right now. On the season Brooks’ club is scoring a league best 106.7 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting and 39.2 percent shooting from three point land, while also knocking down a remarkable 83.2 percent of its free throws. While all those numbers indicate an offense that packs a punch, it also indicates a well-rounded group. The Thunder’s All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook certainly shoulder a large portion of the scoring load, but throughout the season Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison have consistently produced as well.

“We’re just trying to work on areas of our offense where we can have different guys make plays,” Brooks said. “We know that Kevin and Russell will always be there to give us plays, but it’s nice to have some other guys that are able to make plays."

That full team offensive effort has developed throughout the season, as Brooks and his staff have been able to get more creative as the year has gone on. With more practice time together and continuity in rotations, the Thunder has been able to craft new ways to free up Martin and Collison in their two-man game and also ways to free up Durant to simply be a playmaker – as a scorer and a distributor.

Just last night the Thunder displayed some ingenuity with a backdoor pass from Collison to Durant on an in-bounds play and a variation of its pin-down set between Westbrook and Durant, where the latter flared out to the wing instead of curling to the elbow. Between Martin and Collison there is a noticeably growing rapport with dribble hand-offs and backdoor cuts.

“I think we’re right where we need to be offensively,” Martin said. “We all have been in the game for a while and we know what play to make and when to make it. KD is such an amazing talent. When he comes off screens he attracts so much of the defense, not only from those two guys but the guys from the helpside. So he’s done a great job of finding Thabo (Sefolosha) and myself on the weakside.”

Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Martin score from the perimeter, in the lane and at the rim, but if it weren’t for big men like Perkins and Collison setting strong screens and dishing off timely passes, their scoring options would be more limited. The two Thunder big men seem to have a knack for finding cutters along the baseline and have mastered handing the ball off while setting a pick at the same time. Those small plays make a major impact in helping the Thunder’s offense roll.

“They have a good feel for the game,” Brooks said. “They have good hands, they have good instincts and it takes that. You have to have a chemistry with the guys that you’re trying to make the plays with. Those guys are two of our better bigs at making plays like that. I still think they have room for improvement, and they will because we work on it quite a bit.”