It was New Year's Eve in Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook was hunting.
DeAndre Jordan, then of the Dallas Mavericks, had the ball at the top of the key with his back turned to the basket, looking to pass. Westbrook, hands low to his side, hunched over a bit, as if it would make him harder to see, pulled off his man and stalked toward Jordan. Westbrook got his timing slightly wrong, and as Jordan raised his arms to pass, Westbrook lurched for the ball and hit Jordan across the arm. Foul called on Westbrook.
Thunder assistant coach, and known Westbrook whisperer, Mo Cheeks eased his way off the bench and said something to Westbrook along the lines of "that's what you get for gambling."
A couple plays later, Jordan was back at the top of the key with the ball, looking to swing it to the weak side again. Westbrook, stalking his prey again, crouched down and sprung for the ball, this time ripping it from Jordan's hands and starting a fast break for a layup four seconds later. The Mavs called timeout and Westbrook ran back to the Thunder bench laughing as Cheeks just shook his head with a grin.
The Thunder have assembled one of the best defenses in the league, but it goes beyond just being hard to score upon. Their defense is sometimes their best offense, the basketball version of a scoop and score, picking pockets and picking off passes that turn into instant layups and dunks. It's keyed by Westbrook and Paul George, who have spent most of the season alternating between No. 1 and 2 in the league in steals (James Harden currently moved slightly past Westbrook for No. 2), and both rank high in deflections and loose balls recovered.
The Thunder have had an NBA-best 656 chances following a steal this season, per Second Spectrum. They average 1.20 points per chance after a steal, third-best in the NBA (behind the Kings at 1.26 and Raptors at 1.23). After a steal by Westbrook, though, it's 1.26 points per chance and after a George steal it's 1.27 points per chance. The league average is 1.14 points per chance. On average, when the Thunder score after a steal, it takes 9.6 seconds.
It has always been the identity of the Thunder to play fast and furious, but there has been an even bigger emphasis this season. It's one of the reasons Carmelo Anthony was decidedly not a fit. He slowed them down. Grinding, half-court possessions don't fit well with Westbrook-led teams. They need to play in chaos and random free-flowing transition. The more up and down it goes, the better the Thunder perform.
George is one of the best defenders in the league, and Westbrook has always been a ball hawk, jumping passing lanes and peeling off his man to hunt for steals. But that kind of gambling is something he has tried to do less of in recent years.
"In years past, I would say I would gamble a lot more and I would get steals here and there, but now I'm just more in the right spot, using my hands, just being in the place I need to be defensively," Westbrook says. "Me doing that has allowed me to get my hands on basketballs, get deflections, get out in the passing lanes. Just tried to do a better job at that coming in to this year and defend at a high level every night. Just taking pride in that."
"Solid" is the word Westbrook and the Thunder like to use, trusting the turnovers will come.
"A lot times people are very, very careless with the ball, as I know ... f---," Westbrook says with a laugh, "so you can kind of find a way to get steals."
Westbrook still gambles, though. He can't help himself. It's his worst defensive trait, but also maybe one of his unique game-changing abilities. He can flip a game's momentum with a quick read, turning a picked-off pass into a soaring, roaring dunk. Thunder coach Billy Donovan prefers "solid," but would never deny players like Westbrook and George using their instincts to make plays.
"That's what makes those guys elite defenders in my opinion, as the game wears on they can pick up [things]," Donovan says. "You start out with a game plan and a scouting report that you have to be sound and everybody has to be on the same page with, right. But as things start to unfold and they start to see what different players are trying to do against specific screening actions, they can start to see what's happening and then they can to start to anticipate and get their length and athleticism and speed into the game. But it's a tribute to their intelligence and how smart they are as players."
The Thunder lead the league, by a wide margin in steals per game and steals per 100 possessions. They're No. 1 in deflections and second in loose balls recovered. According to Basketball Reference, there have been 150 instances this season of a team committing 20 or more turnovers in a game. Of those 150, OKC is responsible for 16, six more than any other NBA team. The Thunder might not be the best defensive team in the NBA, but they are the most disruptive.
"I think we're two of the best, two of the best at our position, two of the best wing defenders in the league in general," George says. "We don't care who the matchup is, we'll take the challenge. Russ is a far better athlete than I am, and on a nightly basis he shows how good he can be defensively."
And it's a reason why the Thunder think they would have a chance in a series against the Golden State Warriors.
Any conversation about the Western Conference playoffs and who is a contender comes with a pesky footnote.
Yeah, but, you know, the Warriors.
But if there is a flaw to the most powerful basketball team on the planet, it's their tendency to get a little loose.
The Warriors are 22nd in points allowed off turnovers, while the Thunder lead the league in points created off turnovers. In the rivals' two games this season, the Thunder have forced 17 and 21 turnovers -- one of only two games the Warriors have turned it over at least 20 times.
There is no established formula to beating the Warriors, but the Thunder do have a few compelling qualities. Length, athleticism, size and speed are prerequisites, and along with top-tier talent and star power, there's an appropriate respect/fear for what OKC presents. Even in the Thunder's rocky 2016-17 season, they went 2-2 against the Warriors, and in the two wins they forced Golden State into 25 turnovers in one game and 22 in another. Maybe the only way to really stop the Warriors from scoring is to not let them shoot it at all. George in particular has stood out in his games against the Warriors, racking up 18 steals in six games against them with OKC.
The Thunder have risen and fallen on the defensive end throughout the season, but their potential resides squarely on that side of the floor. George is maybe the best overall perimeter defensive player in the league, destroying opposing sets with his ability to slither over screens and intelligently read plays. Westbrook has been more consistent defensively than in recent seasons, but still possesses his knack for thievery.
After the injury to Andre Roberson last January, the Thunder saw a top-five defense fall off a cliff. Without Roberson's elite perimeter stopper skills, OKC struggled defending the 3-point line and couldn't control the ball at the point of attack. Donovan and his reworked coaching staff spent the summer tweaking the scheme, deploying a more aggressive style that keeps the big man up in the pick-and-roll and tries to contain the ball. So much of what the Thunder do is about trusting their length and athleticism to contest shots and close out on drives.
Westbrook and George are at the top of the league in steals and deflections because of their aggressive, instinctual defensive natures, but Steven Adams is the connective tissue. Adams is no slouch with the disruptive stuff, either. He has a unique tactic defending the pick-and-roll where he goes into nearly a full squat in anticipation for a pocket pass, putting his hands basically on the court. Adams has mistakenly been called for kicked balls several times this season, but after making officiating crews aware of what he's doing, it has happened less.
"How it came about is I was just watching guard drills, them coming off pick-and-rolls" Adams says, "and all of them, they just no-look a pocket pass. They're just wired to do it, almost with their eyes closed. So I was like, 'OK, I'll just put my hand there then.'"
Adams' ability to play up enables George and Westbrook (and others like Jerami Grant) to jump passing lanes when an opposing guard feels pressure on the ball.
"There has to be pressure on the ball, there has to be high hands on the ball," Donovan says, "because that's where steals are occurring. Most of the times the steals don't come on the ball. Like you're not seeing guys pick pockets. Generally what's happening there's a lot of pressure on the ball and it gets thrown to the pocket or gets deflected or maybe it's got a lot of hang time and guys can see it and use their speed and generate a steal. The whole thing is about what kind of pressure you can get on the ball."
And that's what the Thunder do when they're cranked up to their defensive potential. They apply pressure.
It was the first play of the game against the Brooklyn Nets and Westbrook was hunting. The Nets ran a high pick-and-roll and Westbrook, whether from advanced scouting or just on-the-fly observation, knew what was coming. He tried a sneak-attack steal from behind, but the Nets reset the possession. Westbrook stayed ready anyway. Seconds later, he swiped a bounce pass near the free throw line and was off.
The Nets are a slick passing team that plays under control and searches out space to drive and kick, but as the Thunder settled in, they forced seven turnovers in the third quarter to overcome a double-digit deficit. If the Thunder have an on/off switch, the breaker is located in their defense. It's the way they change games, flipping momentum with a flurry of swipes that can put them in transition, which is where Westbrook is at his most dangerous.
In the second half, Westbrook nabbed another and was out on the break. He crossed half court, eyes widening and jaw hinged open. When he's really feeling himself and the pace the Thunder are playing with, he'll break out a high-stepping dribble as he zooms downhill at the rim. Westbrook plowed through three Nets defenders and got to the rim, turning a steal into a shot in about three seconds. Westbrook missed the layup and cracked a wide, frustrated grin. He jogged back to the defensive end as the Nets moved the ball a few times. Rodions Kurucs shot-faked a corner 3 to drive at the basket, drawing a defender. He had an easy lob for Jarrett Allen to dunk and tossed it up. Suddenly, Westbrook, in his spring-loaded crouch, exploded into the frame for another steal, smacking the ball off the backboard. George grabbed the loose ball, turned upcourt and five seconds later hit a pull-up 3.
Though if there is a downside to OKC's aggressive style, they foul. A lot. Both Westbrook and George recently fouled out of a game against the Clippers, and as a team they commit 22.9 fouls per game, 27th in the league. They rank 24th in opposing free throw attempt rate. They outplayed the Pacers on Thursday, but let an 18-point lead slip almost entirely because of sloppy fouls in the third quarter. It's an issue Donovan brings up often, and while George has registered his complaints -- recently getting a $25,000 fine for it -- it's the identity of their defense. And in the postseason, as physicality increases and the whistle loosens, they hope it won't be an issue.
"I don't think it was a gamble. It's called defense."Russell Westbrook
Because it's who they are and have to be. They've improved, but they still aren't a great shooting team. They don't execute brilliantly in the half court. They're inconsistent at the free throw line. Westbrook is sporadic in his efficiency. But when the mayhem begins, with deflections and steals and blocks, long-armed limbs flying everywhere, they can create the cataclysmic atmosphere they thrive in.
In early January, on the road against the Trail Blazers, somewhere they hadn't won in five years, the Thunder were building momentum in the fourth quarter. With Westbrook checking him, CJ McCollum kicked the ball over to Damian Lillard to run a set. Lillard caught it, pivoted to his left to use a screen from Jusuf Nurkic. It was the slim window of opportunity Westbrook needed. He left McCollum -- an obvious risk -- bolting toward Lillard. Westbrook picked the ball clean and was now alone in the open court. Three seconds later, an uncontested layup and an eight-point lead as the Thunder went on to win.
"I don't think it was a gamble," Westbrook said after the game, a wry smile creeping across his face. "It's called defense."