Tramel: OKC Thunder's surprising start built on defense, but there's one thing missing
The Thunder came off a five-game road trip with a four-game winning streak and a 5-4 record. Where’s Gomer Pyle when you need him?
Lots of things contributed to the Thunder’s competitiveness. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems ready to step into the spotlight of a star. Lu Dort has been shooting like Lou Hudson (look him up). Hamidou Diallo is bucking for Sixth Man of the Year. Old pros George Hill and Al Horford have been bastions of stability.
But reality is, the Thunder has been winning with defense. For all those encouraging offensive signs, OKC entered its game against the Spurs on Tuesday night ranked 27th out of 30 teams in offensive efficiency.
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The Thunder ranked 11th in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.0 points per 100 possessions.
And the Thunder’s defense waned against San Antonio, which explains why the Thunder fell to 5-5 with a 112-102 loss.
The Spurs committed just four turnovers. That’s right. Four. None in the first quarter. One in the second quarter, on a Lonnie Walker IV travel with 4:29 left in the first half.
The next two San Antonio turnovers were LaMarcus Aldridge offensive fouls, and the Spurs’ fourth and final turnover came in the final minute, when Dort stole the ball from Dejounte Muray and the Thunder desperately trying to rally from a six-point deficit.
The Thunder was outscored 26-2 in points off turnovers. Hard to win a basketball game when you’re outscored 26-2 in any category.
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault pointed out that since before the ball was round, the Spurs prized possessions. They don’t play carelessly. And the Thunder’s defensive philosophy is to play drop coverage and not be aggressive against the pick-and-roll, which means steals are rare. OKC ranks 27th in the NBA in steals per game and 29th in opponents’ turnovers.
But “we have to take some responsibility for that, because we’re out there guarding them,” Daigneault said. “That’s probably a barometer of our activity. But you gotta credit them as well.”
The Thunder’s defense has been above average because Daigneault has trotted out above-average defenders. Dort is world-class. Horford has been an effective low-post defender for more than a decade. Hill came up through San Antonio, then went to the Pacers, so he’s well-trained in solid defense. Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t a stopper yet, but he’s got plenty of potential as a defensive nuisance.
Among the starters, only Darius Bazley needs lots of work defensively, and he’s young. He’ll get better.
The Thunder bench core isn’t great defensively. But that starting unit, which has played the second-most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA, is quite effective defensively. Which is why Tuesday night stuck out.
“When you play a team like that, you have to be clicking on all cylinders,” Hill said of the Thunder defense. “When you’re playing against as good of a systemized team as San Antonio, you have to be dialed in together.”
The Thunder’s defense wasn’t all bad. The Spurs scored 52 points in the paint, counting foul shots, but the Thunder scored 70. It seemed like Spurs Keldon Johnson, Murray and Walker scored in bunches on drives, but they actually combined to make 11 of 22 shots in the paint. Not great defense but not terrible.
“We didn’t defend as well as we do,” said Hamidou Diallo. “We make teams turn the ball over. We make teams make quick decisions. We weren’t in their body enough, we weren’t aggressive, and it showed.”
The Thunder’s surprising start is encouraging if you like wins and discouraging if you’re angling for a high lottery pick. But it’s no mystery. OKC has been winning with defense.