Is OKC Thunder's Defense Elite Enough to Win an NBA Championship?

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Is OKC Thunder's Defense Elite Enough to Win an NBA Championship?
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If flaws accentuate beauty, then the Oklahoma City Thunder aren't all that pretty.

There's a reason the Thunder have propelled themselves to the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference: They don't have many problems on either side of the ball. But that doesn't mean there aren't any issues present.

The Thunder struggle to defend the three, and if they run into a hot-shooting team in the postseason, it could be their undoing.

Oklahoma City's defense is allowing opponents to shoot 35.6 percent from long range, but has particularly struggled of late. OKC opponents have actually shot 39.0 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.

Teams that rain in shots from around the arc may be able to find a way to take advantage of that. If they do, it could spell trouble for a team that should be considered a favorite heading into the playoffs.

 

Old-Guy Defense

Sue Ogrocki

It's the chicken-or-the-egg question of basketball: Is defense more about scheme or personnel?

The Thunder have the scheme. We know that. It's how they've climbed to fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions, but sometimes the personnel isn't there.

That's not to say the Thunder don't have guys on the roster who can lock down opponents. It's just that they aren't always running with the right players.

Scott Brooks prefers his veterans.

We've heard it a million times. Actually, is a million too few? Ten million? How's a billion?

Yeah, we've heard it a billion times. That sounds right. And at this point, Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins getting more minutes than they should is more predictable than a perfectly timed key change in the final verse of a Backstreet Boys song.

In theory, playing Perkins, Fisher and the newly signed Caron Butler makes sense. Those players know where to be and how to get there. 

But they can't physically do it anymore. It doesn't matter how much you know if you're always running in quicksand. 

Teams kill the Thunder with pick-and-roll play when Perkins is on the floor. The ability to move is somewhat important in trying to defend, and Perkins doesn't have that anymore.

A quicker big (like Nick Collison or Steven Adams) may be able to get out to Nikola Vucevic or DeMarcus Cousins on those plays, but Brooks doesn't always put his team in a position to succeed. And that's on Perkins' playing time.

Overplaying the veterans actually explains a decent amount of the Thunder's problems. Speed on the perimeter, closing out on shooters, defending the three. They can all come back to the OKC retirement home in one way or another.

 

It's All in the Middle

Alonzo Adams

The Thunder have a tendency to collapse into the lane when ball-handlers penetrate. Part of that has to do with Perkins' slow feet.

The first thing anyone else says about Perkins is that he's a post defender, and there's a reason for that. It's because he doesn't really defend in any other way.

At this point in his career, Perkins is as slow-footed as it gets, and that means his teammates have to overcompensate to help.

So much overhelping. It doesn't hold together.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Packing the paint is great for rim protection. That, along with Serge Ibaka's shot-altering presence, allows the Thunder to limit opponents to just 56.8 percent shooting in the restricted area, third-best in the league, but it does open up spots on the perimeter.

That's where the Thunder's defensive issues lie: three-point shooting. And with Thabo Sefolosha, arguably the team's best perimeter defender, out with a calf injury from the end of February to the start of April, the three-point defense got even worse.

Oklahoma City opponents shot 25.9 threes a game and 39.5 percent from long range in the five weeks Sefolosha was out of the lineup. Lose your smartest perimeter defender and you start making mistakes on the wings. That's not all too surprising.

Now, though, even with Sefolosha returned, and with the three-point defense likely reverting to where it was at the start of the season, the Thunder still have issues protecting the perimeter. OKC still packs the paint far too aggressively at times.

On this particular play, the Thunder have three defenders in the paint, but the New Orleans Pelicans have three guys on the three-point arc. That's not exactly the best ratio, and it's exactly what hurts the Thunder when they try to defend the three.

Three defending the hoop doesn't exactly work when there are three more on the perimeter, and it leaves Austin Rivers wide open for a good three-point look.

If the Thunder had quick-footed defenders who scurried to the perimeter quickly, that'd be a different story. But they don't, and that's just another reason why their three-point defense isn't up to par.

 

Closing Time

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It's a hidden issue, but a problem at that. The Thunder don't have many guys who consistently contest jump shots on the outside.

Ibaka can alter shots as well as anyone (though, he does have flaws, which we'll get to in a bit). Sefolosha is right there with him as a shot contester. But after that, who has the quickness, length and agility to get a hand in the face of shooters?

Russell Westbrook plays basketball like Russian roulette. Reggie Jackson has a habit of drifting off the ball. So does Jeremy Lamb. And everyone else is too slow to make a difference on a possession-by-possession basis.

So, when everyone falls to the middle of the floor, the Thunder have trouble. And it's not just about athleticism or quickness, like in this Jackson play:

Jackson is as quick as they come, but his footwork is messy on his closeout. He comes at his man as if he is about to face him up, but instead it's a shooter. Jackson doesn't expect that, stops with about five feet between himself and the ball, and lets his man put up a wide-open look.

Swish.

But Jackson has to close out harder than that. Instead, he's just helping to contribute to his team's biggest weakness.

Oklahoma City still has a stifling defense. Because of that paint-packing strategy, they are dominant against two-point looks.

The Thunder are sixth in the NBA in defending mid-range shots. Actually, they are allowing 46.6 percent shooting on two-point looks, fourth in the league.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

That's how OKC is such a strong defensive team even with its three-point struggles. It takes away what are usually decent looks inside the arc. But lethargy can melt a team on the perimeter, and that tends to happen with the Thunder from time to time.

Playoffs teams who move the basketball well can take advantage of the Thunder's slow-footedness on the perimeter. Say, the Phoenix Suns or Dallas Mavericks in a first-round matchup.

Both of those squads swing the rock so well around the three-point arc. They each have an uncanny ability to find open shooters on the perimeter. They're accurate in the corners. And they rank as top-eight offenses.

A matchup against either Phoenix or Dallas wouldn't be fun for OKC, and there's a decent chance we'd see a bunch of threes in such a series.

 

What Happens in Vegas...

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Stopping an offense is more about defending the ball than being around it.

One issue the Thunder have, though it's a small one, is that some of their players try too hard to be near the ball. Guys will dart to spots where they think the rock is going, and if the offense changes plans or the defender is a step late, the possession is over. It's almost guaranteed points.

That's what we call gambling. And though the Thunder have one of the best defenses in the NBA, they still have a propensity to gamble a bit too much.

Risky defense actually comes from two of Oklahoma City's best and most talented players: Westbrook and Ibaka.

Westbrook is a high-energy crunch-time defender and is a stopper on the ball, but we still find him trying to jump into passing lanes all the time when he plays off it.

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Ibaka, meanwhile, has always had one of the top defensive reputations in the league, but his actual play has been a step behind coming into this year. In his case, the notoriety came before the production.

But this year, "the Serge Protector" has earned his nickname. After improving his help defense and becoming more disciplined, he's turned into a legitimate force, one of the reasons this defense has maintained its No. 5 ranking even after the March struggles. But Ibaka is still a gambler at heart.

Serge bites on pump fakes. And it ends up hurting his team more often than not.

Remember how this team is slow on the perimeter? Well, that means things don't work out too well when it's forced to help Ibaka because he strayed too far from the hoop.

Lose your feet, lose the game. 

One of the most frustrating defensive sequences that can happen is when a team plays perfectly for 22 seconds, only to commit a foul right before the end of the possession. But those sorts of things happen when you're going for blocks and tippytoeing on ball fakes, like in this late-in-the-shot-clock Ibaka play against the Los Angeles Clippers:

Time was ticking, but it didn't matter. Darren Collison pump faked, got Ibaka on his feet, and the play was over at that point. "The Serge Protector" stood no chance once he left his feet.

Those are the sorts of plays that can lose close games. But the gambling can pay off.

It's how Westbrook ends up with most of his steals. It can force teams to rush plays, throw bad passes and make hurried decisions. Like everything, there's good that comes with the bad.

How far will the Thunder go in the playoffs?

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Against a high-disciplined playoff offense, though, Russian roulette doesn't always work. Meticulous teams like the San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat can exploit those weaknesses on an off-day. And that means the Thunder better make sure Westbrook and Ibaka make the right decision when they try to get their hands on the ball.

That's the overlying theme with these weaknesses. Most of them are more situational than consistent.

It's hard for a team to possess constant flaws in a defense and still rank in the top five like the Thunder do. So the issues for them come more in particular matchups and moments.

Gambling isn't always bad. It just hurts your team when it doesn't work. 

Failing to get out to the three-point line in time won't always lead to a loss, but teams that throw the ball around the perimeter like they're playing hot potato can manipulate some of those complications.

Clearly, the Thunder are good enough to win it all. But if they come up against an offense who perfectly capitalizes on their small defensive mistakes, that's when they're in trouble. And that's when the Western Conference playoffs become even more chaotic. 

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All statistics current as of April 11 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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