Thunder vs. Grizzlies: Thunder's defense is being exposed

USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder's offense has struggled without Russell Westbrook, but it is the mistakes they make on the defensive side of the ball that has them one loss away from elimination.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are on the brink of elimination. Their offense has stagnated, and while Kevin Durant has been brilliant through the playoffs, his team has not provided the secondary punch the Thunder need to contend. Compounding the problem, the Thunder have made too many mistakes defensively. The hiccup in Oklahoma City's offense has exposed underlying issues in their defense.

The Thunder lost any margin for error they had when Russell Westbrook was injured. An offense that averaged 110.2 points per 100 possessions in the regular season has been whittled down to 103.8 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. In this series, that number is all the way down to 95.6 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder's defense needs to be airtight to compensate, and it hasn't been. The Grizzlies' offense has been more effective than Oklahoma City's, averaging 99.8 points per 100 possessions in the four games. The Thunder's defensive mistakes have been critical through the tight series.

Welcome to Loud City: Thunder player grades for Game 4

Here, Serge Ibaka moves to help Thabo Sefolosha over the top while Mike Conley handles the ball.

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Conley blows by both defenders and finishes at the rim without any defensive resistance. Ibaka's poor defensive positioning opened a clear driving lane for Conley.

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Ibaka should shift closer to the rim and already be in position to stop Conley's dribble penetration. This is a fundamental defensive breakdown from a player who was named to NBA All-Defensive First Team.

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Defensive mistakes in the middle of the game while a team has a double-digit lead are often overlooked, but what about in critical situations? Here, Reggie Jackson botches a defensive closeout on Tony Allen while the game was tied early in overtime. Instead of staying on the ground against a player who is shooting only 37.8 percent from the field through the series, Jackson leaps into the air and loses Allen on the play. Worse, Allen has made none of the seven shots he's attempted outside the paint this series.

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Even Thabo Sefolosha, a player with a great defensive reputation, is making mistakes. Here, he overplays a passing lane.

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Marc Gasol moved up to set a screen but Conley does not need it after Sefolosha is caught out of position. This forces Ibaka to help on Conley. Sefolosha and Ibaka contain Conley, but Gasol is left alone to drift to the elbow, where he will drain an uncontested jumper.

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There's also the issue of Kendrick Perkins. We've already taken an in-depth look at how Perkins is negatively impacting the Thunder's offense, but he's also a non-factor defensively. This is a weak contest on a Zach Randolph jumper.

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Randolph beating Perkins on the perimeter and creating space isn't the only issue. Randolph is also scoring over Perkins in the low post.

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Through the 24 minutes Perkins played in Game 4, he scored two points and grabbed two offensive rebounds (missing one putback attempt). His 4.5 rebounds per game through the series are dwarfed by both Randolph's 10.0 per game and Gasol's 8.8 per contest. Oklahoma City's attempt to "out-big" the Grizzlies has failed not just because of offensive spacing, but because Perkins is not doing anything well for the Thunder on either end.

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The Thunder have many problems to solve in a series where they are down 3-1. It's not just pick-and-roll coverage, it's not just low-post defense and it's not just cutting off dribble penetration. Everything defensively is failing for Oklahoma City. Can the Thunder's defense provide enough cushion for their offense to extend the series?

If any motivation was needed for them to dig in, playing to stay alive in the playoffs should be all the bulletin board material they need.

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