OKLAHOMA CITY -- Up until the final three months of last season, the Thunder had firmly established themselves as one of the league's top-tier defensive teams. They were top-5 in defensive efficiency the previous two seasons, and were largely held together by a scrapping defensive shell as they battled through injuries.
After the All-Star break, though, the Thunder took a defensive nosedive, allowing 107.0 points per 100 possessions, ranking them 27th overall in the league during that span, better than only the Timberwolves, Kings and Lakers. Prior to the All-Star break, the Thunder allowed 101.0, good for 10th in the league.
The general narrative that emerged -- besides the overwhelming injury attrition that finally caught up to them -- is the acquisition of Enes Kanter damaged the team defensively, especially coupled with defensive ace Serge Ibaka's extended absence because of knee surgery. Kanter rather famously notched a horrific individual defensive rating (110.4) as he became the focus of the defensive collapse (never mind that at times the Thunder had just three healthy bigs available).
The Thunder's offensive reconstruction will be under the microscope with first-year coach Billy Donovan, but how he improves them defensively could be what really matters. And Donovan, who during the summer watched every minute of every game the Thunder played the past two seasons, came away with a clear takeaway: He needed to tweak OKC's pick-and-roll coverage.
In the past, the Thunder have relied on more defensive-minded big men (Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka, Nick Collison), which had them hedging harder on ball handlers coming off a screen. Now, with younger players like Steven Adams, Kanter and Mitch McGary set to see big minutes, the Thunder are having their bigs lay back a bit more and relying on the guards to pressure the ball and fight harder through on-ball screens.
“The guards hate it, and it's awesome for us,” Adams said. “We sit back and we're trying to force different shots from the offense.”
“The big guy sits back a little more, so we've gotta press up on the ball and get around the screens,” Andre Roberson said. “It kind of helps our recovery time, so we don't really have to chase around and get back in front if we do our jobs early."
Part of the idea is to attempt to limit opposing 3-pointers. On Tuesday, the Mavericks hit just 4-of-22 from deep against the Thunder (18.2 percent), which for a defense is really good. But that's not the number with which Donovan was happy.
"It's not so much for me the percentage," Donovan said. "It's the number of attempts. Because the more you give up, you're left being vulnerable whether the ball goes in or out. You've kind of lost control once the ball goes up in the air."
Last season, the Thunder ranked 27th in 3-pointers allowed per game, letting opponents fire 24.2 a night. They finished 10th in opposing 3-point percentage (34.3), but some of that is simply luck. In today's NBA, 3-pointers are offensive currency (as Tom Haberstroh wrote this week), so limiting those high-efficiency looks is a defensive objective for the Thunder.
"I wouldn’t say easier, but it’s less difficult than it was last year," McGary said of the defensive scheme. "The guards are more involved in trying to get over the screen and helping the bigs get back to their man. So I think we have a pretty good understanding of it. We’re not going to be perfect because we just installed it the last couple weeks."
• Kanter left Tuesday's game in the fourth quarter with a right ankle sprain.
"Not too bad," Kanter said after the game. "I've had sprains before. It's not that bad."
Kanter didn't practice Wednesday and Donovan said the Turkish big man is doubtful for Friday's preseason game against the Grizzlies.
"They don't feel like it's a significant sprain, but it's sore enough that I don't know if he'll be ready to go tomorrow," Donovan said.
• In the past few seasons, end-of-game possessions for the Thunder have become a bit of their own running joke -- mostly because many of them were simply, "Do something, Kevin [or Russ]." The Thunder routinely stalled out in late-game situations, relying on superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to make a play in isolation all on their own.
It's an area the Thunder haven't focused on much in training camp yet, but one that's certainly going to be covered soon.
"They've got to help me in that area," Donovan said of his two superstars. "Sometimes talented offensive players at the end of a game, if you bring a screen, you're bringing a second defender into their space. And sometimes guys like seeing the whole floor where there's a little bit of room so if someone runs and tries to trap or double they can find an open man. So that's something I would talk to Russell and Kevin about, what they're comfortable with."