By Michael Kinney
Before Oklahoma city took the court in the home opener Thursday, Russell Westbrook was asked a probing question during morning shoot-around.
The veteran was asked what do the Thunder have to do to become the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA? Westbrook answered matter of factually “defend.” When he was asked if he could expound, the sometimes moody point guard said no.
While Westbrook’s answers may have come off as petulant, in actuality, he was correct in what he said and how he said it.
For a number of years Oklahoma City has preached about being a defensive team. Doing the dirty work needed to shut down the high scoring offenses in the league today.
For the most part, that has been exactly that – all talk. Except for a few stretches during the postseason, it’s a concept that hasn’t fully been embraced by the entire team.
The Thunder seem to know that can’t be the case this year. This version of the Thunder has to be dedicated to being a solid defensive squad if they are to compete with Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and the rest of the Western Conference hierarchy.
For at least one game, the Thunder showed defense is not just something they talk about doing. In their season opener Thursday night, they defeated the New York Knicks 105-84 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well. I thought we played better offensively in terms of just more fluid in the second half, but the biggest thing for us was just our defense,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I’ve been really pleased with that, you know, since the start of training camp they have done a really good job defensively.”
On their way to the 21 point victory, the Thunder held the Knicks to 40 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent (7-of-24) from 3-point range. They also forced 25 turnovers and held a 35-8 fastbreak advantage.
Even Kristaps Porzingis, who finished with 31 points and 12 boards, missed 14 of his 25 shots.
“Schematically trying to do the things that we are asking to do and I think by playing great defense, especially this early in the season, where probably most teams are trying to find their way, gives you at least a little bit of room where if you don’t have a great offensive night or you are trying to figure it out offensively you can really fall back to your defense,” Donovan said. “For a first game, there will be a lot of things we can take from this I think and grow from and learn from and try to make improvements.”
Throughout the preseason, a number of Oklahoma City players talked about what they wanted to see from their team on the defensive end.
That’s because offensively, the Thunder were exactly what we thought they were. With the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster, scoring is not going to be a problem. Against New York, Oklahoma City shot 39 of 90 from the field for 43 percent. That will improve.
However, on a side note, there was one offensive statistic that did stand out. After averaging just 26 three-pointers per game last season, the Thunder seemed to have joined the rest of the NBA in believing chicks dig the long ball.
Oklahoma City attempted 38 three pointers against New York. They made only 11 of them.
But all that was secondary to what the Thunder put forth on the defensive side. The question remains, is that the same level of effort fans can expect to see for the rest of the season.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on, our defense leading to our offense and holding teams to under 100 points,” OKC guard Andre Robertson said. “Like we talked about all preseason long, trying to be the number one defensive team. These are all things that go into it and we are taking it day by day to get better on it.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Writer with Eyeamtruth.com