The Oklahoma City Thunder is in trouble; they have zero defensive urgency and it may cost them a playoff spot. Their defensive effort actually their lack of defensive effort was evident in their last game against the offensive juggernaut Houston Rockets. Defending in the NBA is hard; it requires constant communication, trust, and discipline that the Thunder does not seem to exhibit. They are locked into a tight playoff race and have an incredibly tough schedule to end the season. If they are going to get into the playoffs, they will need to fix their defense and it starts with effort.
The Thunder had a top-five defense in the NBA when judged by defensive rating and then Andre Roberson got hurt. Before he got, OKC had three good defenders in him, Paul George, and Steve Adams. They had a defensive rating of 103.1, were riding a seven-game winning streak and it looked like they had finally turned the corner. Since the injury, their defensive rating has dropped to 109.2 and is the 21st worst defense during that span.
Russell Westbrook has been a problem defensively; it is not that he isn’t a capable of defending; it just seems at times he’s an unwilling one. There is no question Westbrook has a lot of responsibilities for this team but he needs to bring in more effort defensively. Last night his effort much like a lot of his teammates’ was subpar. In the first example, he drove to the rim, missed the layup and never entered the frame, leaving his other four teammates to defend the five Rockets and gave up a layup to Nene. Then as Chris Paul is bringing the ball up, he never got into a stance, was standing straight up as Paul just drove right around him for an easy layup. Again, he missed another layup and just trotted back on defense and is way behind the ball. The Rockets get the ball up the court pretty quickly and with their man advantage get a quick three.
It was not just Westbrook last night; the Thunder continually did not make rotations all night. Good defensive teams move as if they are on a string when they rotate. When one goes to help it will pull their teammates to a new position, it requires multiple efforts. Here are three examples of the Thunder not finishing defensive rotations.
In the first one, as Trevor Ariza drove, Adams jumped to help, Westbrook dropped to take Clint Capela like he is supposed to. George is late rotating to PJ Tucker and Carmelo Anthony is late rotating to George’s man James Harden, the ball flies to the corner and Adams closes out on Paul. So far these late rotations haven’t hurt them yet but now Paul blew by Adams and Westbrook comes over to take him, John Huestis dropped to take Capela away. George needs to sprint to zone the weakside and Melo should get back into the play, spoiler alert they don’t. Paul found Ariza in the corner but missed a relatively open three from the corner.
The next play, Paul drove baseline off a Pick-and-Roll, Melo came over to help from the weak side, Westbrook rotates to Tucker in the corner, while George rotates to Ariza. As the ball is being swung around the court, Huestis sprints to Harden while Melo doesn’t follow Paul to the corner who ends up with the ball and launches a corner three.
On the last clip, Melo switched onto Paul and as a second ball screen came, he drove and Adams took Paul while Melo took Capela. Russ rotates over to the action, which should trigger George to cover the corner. The ball got passed there and George doesn’t make the extra effort, put three more points on the board for the Rockets.
The old adage of Defense Wins Championship still exists; there are nights when shots won’t fall but a team’s defense can bring home a win. Even below average defenders can make defensive plays with just effort and getting to the right spots. The Thunder are free falling in the standings are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. If they want to stop this free fall, they need to start by fixing their effort on the defensive end ASAP.