Thunder Can Play Championship-Level Defense Without Russell Westbrook

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2014

TNT's David Aldridge had just asked Kevin Durant how his Oklahoma City Thunder turned their defense around in the second half.

While peering up at the scoreboard, Durant replied with a question of his own: "They scored 19 points in the second half?

"That's correct." Aldridge said.

"Wow, that's probably one of the best halves of basketball we ever played."

He was right. And it wasn't just one of OKC's best nights. The difference between the team defense in the first and second halves was historic.

After emerging from the locker room at halftime down 73-59, the Thunder looked like they were on their way to a .500 record without starting point guard Russell Westbrook. The offense was entirely dependent on Durant and the defense was allowing the Houston Rockets to get whatever they wanted.

Something had to change immediately for the Thunder to win. Since Westbrook couldn't suit up and take some pressure off Durant on offense, the team had to look at the other end of the floor.

Defensively, Oklahoma City completely dominated Houston for the next 24 minutes and emerged with a 104-92 victory.

It showed that the Thunder can not only beat a good team on the road without Westbrook, they can do so while overcoming adversity. After getting shellacked for two quarters, they tightened up the screws defensively and showed there's more to this team than the one-two punch of Durant and Westbrook. 

The 54-point discrepancy they forced from one half to the next was an NBA record.

While a lot of that had to do with the Rockets going cold, there's no way to discount what the Thunder did defensively.

Durant continued in his post-game interview with Aldridge: "Our defense was the reason why we won this game."

You'll get no argument from anyone on that, Kevin.

It was a defensive effort from OKC's players that was frankly startling, even for a team that came into Thursday night with the third best defensive rating in the league.

They looked like a completely different bunch following the break. "We had to run them off the line." Durant told Aldridge. And that's exactly what they did.

The Rockets came into this one averaging 105.2 points while making 8.8 threes a game. They knocked down 12-of-20 from long range in their 73-point first half.

Then OKC went Nigel Tufnel on us and turned up the intensity to 11. Every player, from Durant to Reggie Jackson to Serge Ibaka was flying around defensively on every possession.

And they weren't flying around without a purpose. It was controlled. It was within the defensive scheme. The rotations all ended with textbook closeouts on Houston's shooters. And the Rockets went 0-of-14 from three-point range as they were unable to adjust their gameplan.

They lived by the three in the first half. And oh how they died by it in the second.

You can't really fault them for all the misses. A lot of the looks appeared open right on the catch, but OKC has so many guys with length and athleticism that they close down gaps about as fast as anyone in the league.

Just check out the wingspans of some of the guys guarding the perimeter in the Thunder rotation:

OKC's Length
Reggie Jackson6'3"7'0"
Thabo Sefolosha6'7"7'2"
Kevin Durant6'10"7'5"
Jeremy Lamb6'5"6'11" &

Just imagine trying to knock down a three-pointer with one of those guys closing out on you, arms up to guard against the shot and chopping steps to protect against the drive.

And then on the rare occasion that you might be able to pump fake and get by the perimeter guy, you'd have to deal with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins around the rim.

Perkins is like a brick wall in the paint and Ibaka is fourth in the league in blocks at 2.4 a game.

That nightmare was the reality for the Rockets and it could be for every team that has to face the Oklahoma City in the postseason in 2014.

If the Thunder play with this level of intensity throughout the playoffs, they'll absolutely be contenders to win the whole thing.

After all, it is defense that wins championships, right? 


Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference and and are current as of Jan. 16, 2014. 

For 140-character pearls of wisdom from Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey, follow him on Twitter: @AndrewDBailey. 


    Klay-Day: Warriors Star Evokes Game 6 Heroics

    NBA logo

    Klay-Day: Warriors Star Evokes Game 6 Heroics

    Chris Haynes

    Warriors Remind Rockets That Dynasties Don't Die Easily

    NBA logo

    Warriors Remind Rockets That Dynasties Don't Die Easily

    Reid Forgrave

    Warriors’ Shaky Depth Was Better Than No Depth at All in Game 6

    NBA logo

    Warriors’ Shaky Depth Was Better Than No Depth at All in Game 6

    The Ringer
    via The Ringer

    Report: CP3 Not Likely to Play in Game 7 with Hamstring Injury

    NBA logo

    Report: CP3 Not Likely to Play in Game 7 with Hamstring Injury

    Alec Nathan
    via Bleacher Report