Meet the Oklahoma City Thunder's suffocating defense

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

All the attention has been deservedly given to Kevin Durant, but the other big reason the Thunder are thriving is their stifling defense. Plus: the one major weakness that Kevin Love must change if he wants to rise in the NBA's hierarchy.

January was the Month of Kevin Durant, and February is looking pretty good for the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar, too. Every night, Durant is scoring in ways nobody has since the height of Michael Jordan's run, and every night he seems to find a way to top himself. He's led the Thunder to 11 wins in their last 12 games despite not having Russell Westbrook by his side.

But we'd be remiss to not also note the other key in the Thunder's rise: a shockingly good defense that has lately shut down even the very best offensive clubs in the league. For all Scott Brooks' (considerable) problems designing offensive sets that would get the most out of his team's talent, he has done a masterful job on the other end of the floor, molding a supremely stifling unit. When wingspan, athleticism and execution come together, you get this Thunder defense.

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Oklahoma City is third in defensive efficiency this season and has not missed a beat without Westbrook. Reggie Jackson's wingspan and willingness to play within the system has kept the machine churning, and everyone else is doing their part.

If anything, that ranking undersells this defense's potential. Oklahoma City's scheme isn't quite as active as Miami's withering pressure, but it comes pretty close. And while it's great under normal circumstances, the defense is downright terrifying when dialed up to full capacity. Consider: When the Thunder have the normal one day of rest, their defense allows 98.7 points per 100 possessions, not too far off from their normal number. When they have two days' rest, that number drops to 92.5. But when the Thunder are playing in a back-to-back, their defensive efficiency rises all the way to 105.6, which would rank 22nd in the NBA if carried out over a full season.

That's somewhat unusual. Miami's defensive rest splits, as a point of comparison, are much more stable. So are Chicago's. And while Indiana also sees a big difference in their defensive performance when they play back-to-backs, they still manage to allow less than a point per possession in these situations. Oklahoma City, though, goes from an elite defense to a very poor one when playing consecutive games. If I had to take a guess as to why, I'd wager that this is because it's exhausting to sustain this level of frantic activity during a long regular season. That won't be an issue in the playoffs.

The activity of which I speak is on full display in these screenshots.

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In the first screenshot, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins trap Courtney Lee running a side pick and roll. As that happens, Jackson helps off Nick Calathes to pressure Zach Randolph, the screener, and bother Lee's sure pass out of the trap. Almost every team asks their guard to come to the nail in the middle of the floor to zone on side pick and rolls, but few ask that player to rotate as closely to the screener as the Thunder do. Meanwhile, Durant positions himself in between the two opposite-side shooters, and Serge Ibaka protects the rim, acting as a deterrent against a drive or backdoor cut.

Eventually, because of Jackson's pressure, Randolph is forced to pause for a second before deciding what to do when he gets the ball at the elbow. He swings it back to Calathes, who seems open. But by now, Jackson has already started his recovery and has both the speed and the wingspan to bother the shooter. Meanwhile, Durant seamlessly runs back to Prince, and it looks like your basic man-to-man by the end.

The pressure can throw off the timing of any pick and roll action and ruin an offense's flow. For example, look how it flusters Manu Ginobili just enough to cause a bad pass.


A contested Manu three is a much tougher shot than an open Marco Belinelli one.

The Thunder are more conservative double-teaming the post because Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison are all excellent defenders down there. Otherwise, though, the defense hinges on pressure, recovery and length. The Thunder are fine selling out to the ball because they know they can recover to fill any gaps.

The collective wingspan of this team is off the charts. Other than the relatively stubby Derek Fisher and Perkins, every Thunder rotation player is significantly longer than their average counterparts. Jackson, a 6'3 guard, was listed as having an absurd 7'0 wingspan coming out of college. Reserve guard Jeremy Lamb's wingspan is at 6'11.  Durant was at 7'4.5 coming out of college. Sefolosha, Ibaka and Perry Jones III are not listed in Draft Express' database, but all pass the can-probably-scratch-his-knee-without-bending-at-the-waist eyeball test with ease. It's safe to say that all are oversized for their positions.

A couple years ago, the Thunder realized that they could have all their help defenders take two steps closer to the rim and still have enough length to contest the perimeter. Now, they're walling off the paint and cutting off the three-point line. Teams are shooting just 32.8 percent on corner threes against the Thunder this season, the lowest figure in the NBA. Meanwhile, only the Pacers allow teams to shoot a worse percentage inside of eight feet.

This play shows OKC's length at work.


Few teams move the ball as well as Portland, particularly against double teams. In this case, Damian Lillard is trapped, but both Durant and Jackson are right in their man's faces as Portland swings the ball. Very few team can cover that much ground and make Wes Matthews' shot that difficult.

We've spotlighted Jackson and Durant, but the real stars of this defense are Sefolosha and Ibaka. Sefolosha's man-to-man defense on the perimeter gets the most attention, and deservedly so, but his help defense is what really makes Oklahoma City's D so disruptive. Sefolosha has the ideal combination of anticipation and length, allowing him to disrupt any pick and roll. Notice how he times his arrival in the passing lane perfectly to pick up steals.

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You'll rarely see Sefolosha get out of position with this kind of stuff. More often than not, his presence slows or even stops that obvious pass out of the trap. And should he get caught, he, too, is excellent at closing out on shooters.

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Nobody plays the nail better than Thabo. His length disrupts even when he doesn't get the steal, as on this Kelly Olynyk turnover.

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Ibaka, meanwhile, is the reason why teams still try moving the ball on the perimeter against the Thunder despite their length. He's always been a genius weak-side shot blocker, but Ibaka's positioning and timing continues to improve. He used to get caught too far away from the rim on help coverages, but now he knows he's most useful at the rim.

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And thus, he scares the crap out of opponents. Watch Norris Cole on this sequence. See if you can spot the moment when he seems like he just saw Candyman standing behind him.


That's why the Thunder don't allow a lot of easy shots at the rim even though their defense is aggressive on the perimeter.

As icing on the cake, also consider that the Thunder can switch more freely than most teams because of their speed. That allows them to hang in there even when they make mistakes. This kind of recovery, after a poor breakdown by Lamb, is unfair.


How many teams have a player like Jones that can switch onto a guard and disrupt what would have been a wide-open three by one of the league's best shooters?

And it's not just Perry Jones either. Look at Ibaka closing out on LeBron James here after several other switches to end the first half in Miami.


The Thunder's defense is not impossible to beat, of course. Like many overload schemes, it struggles with misdirection; if you can occupy Sefolosha's attention in particular, the Thunder's collective wingspan is clipped somewhat. The Wizards did a great job using the threat of Bradley Beal's jumper to distract Sefolosha and open up other opportunities in their 96-81 win on Saturday, for example. Perkins, bless his soul, is still an excellent post defender, but can be exploited in space during the times Scott Brooks inexplicably sticks with him. And, of course, teams with really quick ball movement can beat the rotations.

But, as they've shown throughout the Month of Durant, the Thunder have the athletes, scheme and execution to stop the best offenses in the league. Oklahoma City's D has been steadily improving for some time, but never has it been this stingy or stifling or complete. That, combined with the best offensive player on the planet and the eventual return of a multiple-time All-Star, makes the Thunder the clear favorites in the West and possibly the entire league.

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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Kevin Love is one of the five best offensive players in the league. His shooting is a lethal weapon at power forward, one the Timberwolves happily deploy with a series of different sets that turn Love into both a primary option and a great decoy. He's become an excellent post-up player, too, ranking 54th in the league in points per possession on plays that he finishes by himself, per MySynergySports.com. He's always been a great rebounder and continues to be this season. Without him, the Timberwolves are toast.

But his defense? Ehhhhh, yeah, let's talk about that. Now that he's the face of a franchise that is healthy and talented enough to make the postseason, he needs to start consistently pulling his weight on that end.

So far, the results have been mixed. There are times where Love really digs in and does his part, even when his man doesn't have the ball. You have to appreciate his effort here rotating down to stop the pick and roll, then at least stunting Steve Blake so he was a beat off on the pass to Nick Young in the corner.


And here, he does a nice job of rotating down to stop the roll man, then recovering to force Ryan Kelly into a turnover.


But there are also times when he is no more than a traffic cone. While he's starting to curb his tendency to go for rebounding position instead of contesting shots, it is still an issue from time to time. How can he not contest this Mike Miller drive when he's coming right by him?

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Love only had two personal fouls, so that can't be an excuse. Minnesota has struggled in tight games all year, and poor effort plays like that are a huge reason why.

That lack of effort also happens early in games, when Love shouldn't be tired. Look at this matador D when he should be contesting Paul Millsap's drive.

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Most frustratingly, Love's taken a huge step back with his transition defense. This is the least glamorous part of the game; there are no mixtapes on YouTube of players sprinting back and matching up while building a wall to prevent a speedy guard from getting to the rim. It's not just unglamorous, it's almost invisible. It's also hugely important, and increasingly appears to be the segment of the game that Love cares least about.

Some examples:





It's become customary to see Love wear out his index finger pointing to someone else to pick up his man as he strolls down the floor. For example:

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Or, sometimes, he just doesn't do anything.

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Love is far from the only star who doesn't always hustle back on defense. Dwyane Wade has long been a towering figure in the I'll-get-there-when-I-get-there scene, as have Carmelo Anthony and, at least last season, John Wall. But Love's lack of effort has been the most glaring this year and is the main reason why Minnesota has been blitzed in transition in several losses this season. The Timberwolves are a slow team in general, but they still shouldn't be this bad at transition defense. Love is the biggest reason why they are.

Fix this issue, and Love really becomes a top-10 player. Until then, it's hard to put him above some of the other great power forwards in this league.

LEFTOVERS

10 other observations from the week that was.

  1. Kyle Lowry should be an All-Star, especially over Joe Johnson. That not exactly an original opinion, obviously. But while there's been a lot done to quantify Lowry's statistical impact, there hasn't been quite as much film study showing what Lowry does to help his team win. This kind of sacrifice to bump Anthony Randolph's cut down the lane is a good start.
  2. Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated went in-depth on DeAndre Jordan, a player who is sometimes dominant and sometimes completely out of place. Like Mahoney, I'm still not sold on Jordan or the Clippers' defense because I worry about Jordan's lack of concentration. Sure, the breakdown here is Jamal Crawford's, but why is Jordan hugging Marreese Speights instead of trying to protect the rim?
  3. More SB Nation breakdowns

  4. Wizards coach Randy Wittman had a great line about the resurgent and essential Trevor Arizavia Bullets Forever. "I just watch him. He reads eyes," Wittman said. Here is Ariza reading Kevin Durant's eyes before yet another deflection and steal. Ariza has often been over-eager to pile up steals in the past, but he's become more judicious this year, and the Wizards' scheme has become much better at covering his misses.
  5. I define "shot jacking" as firing from the perimeter when the play clearly calls for the ball to go elsewhere. The Cavaliers lead the league in this category, and Dion Waiters surely leads the team. This is some stellar shot-jacking.
  6. Caron Butler might have Waiters beat, though.
  7. Oh no, Reggie Evans.
  8. I'm not totally sold on Orlando's existing talent (most notably, Tobias Harris), and I wonder if it's good for that team's development to be this morbid. But I think they have a keeper of a coach in Jacque Vaughn, who has helped Arron Afflalo reach an All-Star level with interesting play-calling that gets the most out of Afflalo's ability to move without the ball. This is one of Orlando's favorite sets, and I love the design. It gives Afflalo the option of posting up on one block or darting back the other way off a double screen. He makes the read, and Orlando goes from there. (EDIT: Here's a four-minute mix of the play that gives you an idea of the different options).
  9. Speaking of fun plays: It doesn't get much better than the Nuggets' adaptation of Mike D'Antoni's famous Pistol sets up the sideline. The Nuggets were one of the first teams besides the Suns to add this to their playbook, and Brian Shaw continues to run it in his first year as head coach. This is Pistol Up, where a wing swings from the corner to the top of the key as a decoy to the side pick and roll between the point guard and a big man.
  10. There isn't much to complain about with the Grizzlies these days, but I haven't been all that inspired by Nick Calathes as he's filled in for Mike Conley. Calathes had an excellent shooting game against the Bucks on Saturday, but hasn't been enough of a scoring threat otherwise and certainly lacks Conley's ability to attack small creases in a defense. Here, he's coming off a screen with tons of open space, with 8 on the shot clock ... and pulls it back. That set a tone. Reggie Jackson helped off him repeatedly for the rest of the game, mucking up Memphis' already-cramped spacing. In the NBA, when you're open, you have to make a play.
  11. Jose Calderon: RIM PROTECTOR.

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