John E. Hoover: Thunder can go far with consistent team defense
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
2/05/13 at 7:14 AM
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Original Print Headline: Thunder can go far with team defense
OKLAHOMA CITY - Kevin Durant can bank 3-pointers off the mascot if he wants. Russell Westbrook can launch himself through Chesapeake Energy Arena like an angry bird.
But if the Oklahoma City Thunder is going to make another run in the NBA playoffs - if they're really going to challenge Miami for basketball supremacy - it's going to have to look a lot like Monday night.
The Thunder crushed Dallas 112-92 not with high-flying offensive acrobatics, but with suffocating defense.
"It was just us playing the right way," said defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha. "When all of us, 13 guys, put our mind into it, sticking to one another, sticking to the principles on defense we try to accomplish, it's tough to beat us."
Oklahoma City (36-12) led by as many as 33 against the struggling Mavericks (20-28) mostly because of a defense that produced 11 steals, eight blocked shots and 51 misses.
On one third-quarter possession, Sefolosha narrowly missed a run-through steal at the top of the circle, but got back quickly enough to instead block the 3-point attempt.
It was the by-product of a disappointing finish at Cleveland, a 115-110 loss that got away because of bad defense. The Cavaliers outscored OKC 39-32 in the fourth quarter.
"We look at each other and we look at ourselves in the mirror too," Sefolosha said, "and we know we have to step it up."
So earlier Monday, at pregame shoot-around, coach Scott Brooks and his players talked about cranking up their defensive intensity against Dallas.
"A good team usually responds to losses like that," said Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki. "I remember we used to respond like that."
Oklahoma City improved to 11-1 this season in games following a loss. But the Thunder also has gone nine games in a row without back-to-back wins. The late meltdown at Cleveland was a good opportunity for Brooks to remind players that to get another streak going, their defense will need to be better.
"We just weren't very good against Cleveland," said Thunder forward Nick Collison. "We've been inconsistent over the last half of the last month. Over the road trip, we weren't as consistent as we wanted to be, and that's what we need to do, that's how we have to play to be at our best.
"I feel like when we have that intensity the whole game, we're really tough to beat. The hard part is getting to do it every night and having consistency with that."
And yet the Mavs came out hot, hitting 11 of their first 14 shots from the field - 73 percent. There were a couple of tough shots by veteran Shawn Marion (he finished 10-of-14 for 23 points) and others, but 11-of-14 isn't good defense by anyone's standards.
Still, there was a different feel to how the Thunder was playing defense.
"I felt like we had a good night ahead of us," Sefolosha said.
Again, poor Mavs.
Dallas made just 14 of its next 47 shots, or 29 percent, before Brooks rested his regulars. The Mavs, playing without an ill Vince Carter and an injured Chris Kaman, finished the night at 41 percent.
"Give our guys a lot of credit, they came in and responded - all five guys participated," Brooks said. "Like I've said many times, it doesn't matter who guards who, as long as they guard. And I thought tonight, all our guys guarded all their players and did a good job making them miss shots.
"We had a good defensive focus."
The trick, of course, is to maintain that defensive focus, or at least frequently recapture it, over the next five months.
"Well, an NBA season is a challenge. It's a marathon," Collison said. "It's a lot of games that you have to constantly fight fatigue, not feeling your best, and just mental fatigue. I think that's human nature. You're gonna have that. But if we're gonna be a good team, we have to fight that off.
"It's just that little extra five percent that really makes the difference in being totally locked in and playing with as much energy as possible or a little bit less, and if you have a little bit less, that's all the difference. So we're trying to get that level up and be consistent with it."
In the NBA Finals last year, the Heat shot .464 from the field and .429 from 3-point range. In the clinching game, Miami shot 52 percent from the floor and 54 percent from beyond the arc.
It was the painful opposite of the kind of defense OKC played against Dallas. More efforts like Monday will at least give the Thunder another opportunity to win the Western Conference - maybe more.
"Of course," Sefolosha said. "I mean, people say defense wins championships, and that's just not a saying. I strongly believe in that and I think the whole team strongly believes in that."
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Hasheem Thabeet celebrate during their win against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. NATE BILLINGS / The Oklahoman