Checklist of Efficiency

OKC Earns Sixth-Best November Defense by Honing Fundamentals

Nick Gallo

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor

Nov. 30, 2021

Thunder defensive ace Lu Dort turned up the temperature during a second-half sequence on Oct. 24, harassing Philadelphia 76ers guard Furkan Korkmaz into a fumbling possession that eventually resulted into a turnover. A game later, it was a Thunder team effort to rotate, scramble and recover on a third-quarter possession against the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors that forced a contested and then missed 3-pointer by Damion Lee. The next night, it was a solid defensive stretch against the Los Angeles Lakers when the Thunder didn’t allow a made field goal for three-straight minutes to end the second quarter igniting the fuse on a record-tying 26-point comeback.

Honing the fundamentals and executing them collectively has turned those tone-setting October moments into extended stretches in the month of November, where the Thunder has been one of the top defenses in the entire NBA. The flipping of the page on the calendar wasn’t magical, but what bubbled under the surface as potent moments and powerful sequences early on has turned into an outstanding potion. The Thunder ranks sixth in defensive rating in the month of November (104.6), just behind the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and ahead of the Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets.

On Nov. 1, the first game of a road trip in Los Angeles, the Thunder held the Clippers to just 3-of-17 shooting from the field to start the game, setting a stifling tone from the very outset. The Thunder sustained that effort by forcing a pair of shot clock violations in the third quarter, including one where Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala denied Paul George a look at the rim on a daring drive. Second year players Aleksej Pokuševski and Théo Maledon sealed off defensive stands with ferocious rebounds in the fourth quarter, then rookie Josh Giddey picked up a steal forced by a Thunder trap on George to keep it a close game. Coming up just short of a win didn’t deter the Thunder—the group has maintained that same tenacity on defense over the past 30 days by leaning into a few crucial fundamentals.

“We're really just trying to establish our base right now,” said head coach Mark Daigneault. “It's really just an efficiency thing—the checklist of efficiency.”

The first core principle of the Thunder’s defensive game plan is getting back on defense, and Daigneault has drilled his team into hustling in transition, communicating and matching up to a man better than any other Western Conference team this year.

“Sprint back, giving it 100-percent effort,” said Williams of the coaches’ message.

The Thunder has allowed the second fewest fast break points per game in the month of November (8.9), which is the defensive cornerstone that allows all of the following pillars to stand. There was no better example of the value of transition defense than on Nov. 12, when Pokuševski hustled back through the middle of the open floor to chase down Sacramento’s Chimezie Metu and block a sure-thing layup to save two points—the eventual Thunder margin of victory.

“We want to be a team that is fighting and playing together,” said Pokuševski. “We're together and we just keep grinding.”

Once the Thunder is back and set up with all five men, that’s when it can really start to get to work in its half-court shell, which is the start of the second defensive principle—defending the paint. In the month of November, the Thunder has allowed the fourth fewest points in the paint per game (41.1) as well as the third lowest overall field goal percentage (42.2 percent). Those numbers go hand-in-hand because the league’s highest percentage shots come at the rim, and the wide-open catch-and-shoot jump shots on the perimeter originate when the ball touches the paint on a drive or a post-up.

Protecting the paint is a catch-all phrase that has many meanings, however, which include taking individual pride to stay in front of a driver and communicating in pick and roll coverage. In that Sacramento game, the Thunder managed to shut off an alley-oop trend from the first 28 minutes of action, preventing the Kings from scoring on that play for the final 20 minutes of the game by pinching over in help with a weakside defender—another successful method of paint protection that happens below the rim and between the ears, aided by huddles and film sessions.

“The best teams defensively talk the most, and it ultimately just makes it easier because you can listen and you know where to be and when to be,” said guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “It’s knowing what certain guys like to do and trying to make them all as uncomfortable as possible – film is almost like a cheat sheet before you play, before you take the test.”

If the opposition can’t get any downhill action going with the pass, often it will resort to one-on-one creation late in the shot clock with its primary playmakers. That’s where the Thunder’s third defensive principle comes into effect—being physical without fouling. Fortunately, the Thunder has an All-Defensive team caliber performer in Lu Dort, who takes on the challenge of defending the opposition’s best perimeter player each night. Those elite scorers are the ones who get the free throw line the most often, but Dort has committed just 52 fouls in 594 minutes. Meanwhile, he’s drawn 15 offensive fouls on the opposition during that same time on the floor.

“The thing I'm trying to do the most is really stay in front of my opponent all the time, to always show my hands and have my chest up,” Dort said.

It’s not just Dort who takes on the challenge in isolation or fighting through screens. Often the Thunder platoons the third-year Montreal native with a hustler from central Texas. Kenrich Williams comes off the bench when Dort comes off, but Daigneault says instead of passing a baton, it should be a ceremonial headbutt between Dort and Williams given their hard-nosed approach to defense.

In the front-court, there’s another man who has been taking on responsibility—Darius Bazley. The third-year forward has assumed one of the most difficult matchups each night at the four spot—Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, among others—and yet has the fewest fouls per game (0.8) of anyone in the NBA playing 25 minutes or more. The result of all that disciplined defense for the Thunder in November has been the sixth fewest free throw attempts allowed per game (17.8).

Once the Thunder defense has gotten back, walled off the paint, kept their hands in plain sight and away from opponents’ limbs and jerseys, it’s usually about time for a shot to go up. Every time that happens, Thunder players are held accountable for closing out sharply and getting a hand up in the face of the shooter. In the month of November, the Thunder ranks third in the NBA in total contested shots per game (56.6), challenging over 63 percent of all shots taken by opponents.

While eyes in the stands gaze at the arc of the basketball, Thunder players are checking their corners and starting their box outs. Finishing off a possession with a defensive rebound is one of the best indicators of a strong defense, and that’s one of the areas the Thunder has excelled the most in November, compiling the third best defensive rebounding percentage (75.8 percent) which has led to the fourth fewest second chance points allowed per game (11.2).

“It's guys putting bodies on the other team and gang rebounding,” said veteran center Derrick Favors, one of five Thunder players averaging 5-or-more rebounds per game. “It's just will and competitiveness. It's something you have to be willing to do.”

When the Thunder can close off cracks at extra possessions, that’s when the success sequence starts ramping up with offensive momentum attached. On Nov. 4, that wheel spun as OKC held the Lakers to just two field goals over the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter. One game later, on Nov. 7 against the Spurs, the Thunder forced San Antonio into 1-for-14 shooting, including 0-for-9 from 3 during a five-minute third quarter stretch that resulted in a 20-2 Thunder burst. Back on the road in New Orleans on Nov. 10, the Thunder burst out of the gates on an 8-0 run, then added spurts of 15-0 and 14-1 by hitting on all four key defensive fundamentals.

Ultimately, when it comes to not just winning but more importantly, establishing winning habits, defense boils down to what the Thunder coaching staff has dubbed, “the moment of truth”. If an opponent rises up for a dunk or layup, the Thunder must have the impulsive courage to bring verticality to contest at the rim, like Bazley did by successfully blocking the menacing Antetokounmpo twice on dunk attempts in Milwaukee on Nov. 19.

“It’s making sure teams are playing against all five of us, while priding ourselves on one-on-one defense,” said Bazley. “High energy. Effort. Discipline.”

For other, less springy players than Bazley, it’s taking a charge or making a hard foul to prevent an easy layup. For Dort, it’s digging in, not allowing himself to be screened and keeping his feet light and hands quick. With the game on the line against Sacramento, he pressured rising star De’Aaron Fox into a turnover, then scooped up the loose ball and scored on the other end for a game-winning bucket. That victory was a fourth-straight win for OKC, which helped stabilize a 1–5 October with a 6–8 November.

By connecting those defensive pillars, the Thunder has been able to put together a well-rounded defense that has allowed the fifth fewest points per game (103.2) in November. That has also meant the team has legitimately been in more games late in fourth quarters, creating increased opportunities for “moment of truth” plays. With more chances to be in do-or-die situations, the Thunder will only continue to develop as a unit and individuals. Just like how this young squad is learning the core defensive fundamentals, it’s also figuring out how to show up in the biggest situations of games. In time and with seasoning, that process will lead to the Thunder’s desired outcomes on the scoreboard.


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