The Oklahoma City Thunder are proving that "defense" is a relative term.
At first glance, holding the Los Angeles Clippers to 101 and 112 points in Games 2 and 3 (respectively) doesn't sound like a reason to praise a defensive effort. But this isn't your average series, and first glances can be deceptive.
The Clippers led the league in scoring this season with 107.9 points per contest. They dropped 122 in Game 1 of the semifinals.
Head coach Doc Rivers' offense is as potent as they come, boasting dominant interior scorers like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan along with a sweet-shooting supporting cast including J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford.
Most importantly, Chris Paul directs the show.
Griffin had 34 points in Game 3. Paul had 16 assists (and no turnovers). These are dangerous men, a one-two punch of inside-outside action that benefits from an uptempo approach and countless highlight-worthy plays. They've been consistently unstoppable all season long, and they've been just as scary in the postseason, eventually outlasting the Golden State Warriors in the first round thanks to a Game 7 in which Los Angeles posted 126 points.
That wasn't even the Clippers' series high. They scored 138 in a 40-point Game 2 romp that immediately shifted the momentum after a narrow Game 1 loss.
So if Game 3's 112 points sound like a lot, consider the alternatives. The Clippers are no strangers to scoring even more, and it's no coincidence that OKC has prevented anything too crazy from happening for two consecutive games.
Brooks made an adjustment in the fourth quarter Friday night, going to a smaller lineup that posed some problems for Los Angeles.
But that lineup held the Clippers to just 22 points in the final frame, and Brooks noted that improved defense was a big part of the equation, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com): "We stayed small and they had some tough decisions to make on who to put their big on. In the fourth quarter our defense went up another level. Russell was finding guys. Everybody chipped in to help us win."
Given the wealth of talent with which he has to work, Brooks often takes the brunt of the criticism when OKC falls short. In this instance, he deserves some credit. His defensive message is starting to sink in.
And even he can't be blamed for what happened in Game 1. NewsOK.com's Jenni Carlson argued as much afterward:
Obviously, not even the best coach on the planet could have guessed that Chris Paul would have a night like he did. He hit the first eight threes that he attempted. No player has ever done that in the history of the NBA Playoffs. He finished 8 of 9 from deep, scored a game-high 32 points and admitted after the game that it goes down as one of the greatest nights of his career. He even joked about his shooting prowess.
The defensive turnaround in Game 2 was palpable. Russell Westbrook set the tone early on and finished with three steals—in addition to the triple-double that grabbed most of the attention. After the game Brooks said, "I thought Russell’s defense was as good as it’s been all year," according to Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.
Thanks to Westbrook's efforts, Paul was held to just 17 points after his Game 1 explosion.
Good as the Thunder have been on the defensive end, this could still be a long series. The defensive dilemmas awaiting them have already begun to emerge. USA Today's Sam Amick outlines the most pressing:
Of all the jobs that the Thunder have against these wildly talented Clippers, slowing Griffin is both the most important and the most challenging. Chris Paul will be Chris Paul on most nights, but the true uniqueness of the Clippers shows when Griffin is the one playing like the MVP candidate. And while the power forward snapped out of his two-game funk to finish with 34 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks, that it went for naught was no doubt demoralizing.
Demoralizing, but not disqualifying. The Clippers are still very much in this fight, largely because of Griffin's explosive ability and much-improved offensive versatility. While he isn't at his best shooting jumpers, the fact he can make them has made him all the more difficult to guard.
The key is keeping him from getting loose in the paint.
Before Game 3, center Kendrick Perkins indicated defensive philosophy was a big part of the team's focus, according to NBA.com's Nick Gallo: "“We feel like if they can’t use their athleticism, it’s to our advantage. We try to put a body on them and make them take tough, contested two’s.”
The Thunder actually did a pretty good job of limiting Griffin in Games 1 and 2. He made a combined 12 of 29 field-goal attempts, a sub-.500 percentage that falls short of dominance.
Griffin was due an explosive performance in Game 3, and it may not be his last one. If OKC can continue to knock his supporting cast off-kilter, it may not matter.
Neither Redick nor Crawford was able to develop a comfort zone on Friday night. Together, they made just seven of 24 field-goal attempts. Crawford scored 20 points, but they weren't an efficient 20. Redick never found his range.
Redick's off night may have just been an anomaly, but this is the second straight bad game for Crawford. He was just two of 13 in Game 2. This is where Thabo Sefolosha deserves some credit for his individual defense. The Thunder don't have him out there for his scoring ability, but he's proving he's worth the minutes.
Brooks praised his effort after Game 2, per NewsOK.com's Berry Tramel:
Thabo came back and gave us a good defensive presence on Redick in that second half. I thought he had too many open looks in the first half, but he really locked in and did a much better job in the second half... I thought his defense in that third quarter gave us a spark that we needed. He had his hands on the basketball, contesting shots, got a couple steals, and then he made some shots.
You don't hear much about guys like Sefolosha and their defense. On a team whose headlines are dominated by Durant and Westbrook, that makes sense. But if you're looking for the real reason this series is turning OKC's way, it's worth digging a little deeper. The recent success hasn't just been the story of a dynamic duo and its penchant for getting buckets.
It's also about the less-heralded names, the less obvious efforts, the little things that yield big dividends.
The Thunder fundamentally understand that defense wins championships. It may not look that way based on final scores alone, but the games themselves tell a different story. It's not always the sexiest story, but it's an important one.
It could be the one that decides who wins this series.