Despite Loss to Lakers, Durant's Thunder Make Noise With Defense
Jeff Green slowly put his bright blue tie in place on top of his matching shirt at his locker. Thabo Sefolosha softly slapped cologne on his neck nearby. In the corner of the dispirited Oklahoma City locker room late Tuesday night at the Staples Center -- where the Lakers outlasted the Thunder 95-92 -- veteran Kevin Ollie consoled James Harden in hushed tones.
When a walkie-talkie inadvertently blared, the guilty staff member lunged for the off button so quickly you'd have thought he had the right answer on Jeopardy! When a media member's cell phone inexcusably rang, it went quiet so quick the ditty never had a chance.
Everyone in the room knew this series may have just ended, that these young Thunder had missed two reachable chances to win on the defending champions' home floor and now face the tall task of winning four out of five. But rest assured, the buzz surrounding these boys will resume in full force soon enough.
For years to come.
The Thunder's relentless defense was simply spectacular in Game 2, as it held the Lakers to 37.5 percent shooting and finished with 17 blocks to set a record for a Lakers opponent in the playoffs. The Thunder played hard, smart, and together, making Kobe Bryant work for all of his 39 points (on 12-of-28 shooting) all while holding Ron Artest, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom to a combined 6-of-29 from the field.
The only thing the Thunder made easy to defend was their long-term plan.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, then the standard-setters in San Antonio should be honored. What we saw and what we are seeing is Spurs redux, a blueprint in which the dedication to defense is not only a daily speech but a powerful culture.
It is an approach that breeds champions and lends itself to longevity, especially when centered on a 21-year-old phenom like Kevin Durant and a strong supporting cast of uber-athletes still waiting to rent their first car. And while it is surely an agenda chosen by former Spurs executive and Thunder general manager Sam Presti, it took a coach to implement and a certain style to succeed.
Scott Brooks, who is in his first full season at the helm.
"One of the great things about working with Scott is he coaches the vision of the organization," Presti told FanHouse. "Obviously Scott and I both believe philosophically that you've got to play defense in order to progress and play meaningful games at the end of the season. It's not something that happens overnight. We both understand that.
"By his nature, Scott is someone who comes in each day just trying to push the needle a little bit more. I think that's one of his great strengths."
After taking over for the fired P.J. Carlesimo and finishing the 2008-09 campaign with a 23-59 record, the rookie head coach did just that.
"It was right after we played the Clippers (in a regular season finale on April 15, 2009), in the exit meetings," Brooks said. "I said (to his players), 'We've got to be a better defensive team. We can't go into games looking to score 110 (points), and hopefully the (opponent) scores 109.'
"Guys were focused. All summer long, we've talked about it, whether I saw them personally or was texting them, telling them that defense has to be a priority, that it has to start in training camp and it has to take place every day, every shootaround, and we focused on it."
Brooks -- whose team ended the regular season ranked first in blocks (5.9 per game), 11th in points allowed (98 per game), seventh in opponent's field-goal percentage (44.8 per game), and fifth in opponent's turnovers per game (15.1 per game) -- has continued to emphasize the defensive side of the ball far more than offense ever since.
"I don't know the percentages, but I very rarely talk about offense -- very rarely," Brooks said. "It's an afterthought. With the drills and everything, it has all been about defense, because we needed to change how we were approaching our game. We had to come in as a defensive team. That's what the championship teams do."
Brooks is the first to admit he has a huge advantage, as his young superstar is the rare type who isn't obsessed only with scoring. Durant was at his defensive best late in the third quarter, denying three Lakers in one sequence while doing his best impression of rookie Serge Ibaka (who had seven blocks in 28 minutes). Durant swatted a falling jumper from Ron Artest on the left block, only to turn in time to block a driving layup from Bryant, and finally deny Pau Gasol on his putback attempt.
"It's a guy like Kevin Durant, who's our leader, really buying into it and doing the effort every day in practice, every day during games, to take the challenge defensively," said Sefolosha, the team's best perimeter defender. "That really set the tone for the whole team."
And while Artest clearly wasn't impressed with Durant's 32-point scoring night -- "He had eight turnovers," he would later point out -- the best defender of the bunch jumped at the chance to compliment the defense of Durant and his running mates. They may not have been talking on the Thunder side, but Artest and the rest of the Thunder admiration society won't stop talking about them anytime soon.
"They're a great defensive team," an emphatic Artest said. "I tell people that. They're a young team, but they're not young and dumb.
"That team's like my little (six-year-old) daughter. People say she's ahead of her time because she knows so much. That team is ahead of their time."
To follow Sam on Twitter, go to @sam_amick.