Posts Tagged ‘Serge Ibaka’

SportVU: Uncontested Jumpers vs. OKC

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In our Q and A at All-Star weekend, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks said that when his team is on defense, he’s “concerned about making sure that every shot is contested.”

Contesting every shot is impossible, but Brooks’ team certainly can do a better job. According to SportVU, no team has contested a lower percentage of its opponents’ jump shots than the Thunder . They’ve contested just 24 percent of opponent jumpers, a mark well below the league average of 31 percent.

Perc. of opponent jump shots contested
Rank Team Cont%
1. San Antonio 38.2%
2. L.A. Clippers 36.9%
3. Indiana 35.6%
4. Denver 34.7%
5. Memphis 34.4%
6. Atlanta 34.3%
7. Portland 34.2%
8. Charlotte 34.1%
9. Chicago 33.8%
10. L.A. Lakers 33.7%
11. Golden State 33.1%
12. Orlando 32.2%
13. Toronto 31.8%
14. Boston 31.3%
15. Miami 30.8%
16. Phoenix 30.7%
17. Detroit 30.2%
18. Dallas 29.8%
19. Minnesota 29.6%
20. Washington 29.3%
21. Brooklyn 29.3%
22. Sacramento 28.6%
23. Milwaukee 28.2%
24. New Orleans 27.9%
25. Houston 27.9%
26. Utah 27.1%
27. Cleveland 26.4%
28. Philadelphia 24.9%
29. New York 24.5%
30. Oklahoma City 23.8%
League avg. 30.9%

SportVU defines a jump shot as any shot out outside of 10 feet. It’s contested if a defender is within four feet of the shooter.

There’s a much stronger correlation between defensive efficiency and opponent effective field-goal percentage (EFG%) than between defensive efficiency and any of the other “four factors” (rebounding, forcing turnovers, keeping opponents off the free-throw line).

Here’s the thing, though. The Thunder rank fourth in opponent EFG% and fourth in defensive efficiency. They’ve been a great defensive team — even though they haven’t contested jump shots very well. There is a correlation between the percentage of jumpers a team contests and its opponents’ EFG% (and in turn, their defensive efficiency). The Thunder are an outlier.

They have defended the rim well. They rank fifth in opponent field-goal percentage in the restricted area, with Serge Ibaka ranking among the top individual rim protectors. That’s obviously important.

But, by itself, it doesn’t account for how high the Thunder rank in opponent EFG%. Not only do they not contest jumpers very well, but they don’t really force bad shots. About 61 percent of their opponents’ shots have come from the restricted area or 3-point range, the seventh highest rate in the league.

So how have they been so good defensively? They do rank in the top 10 in defensive rebounding percentage and are slightly above average at forcing turnovers. But you have to wonder if there’s a little luck involved. Take the following numbers into account…

  • Thunder opponents have shot 38.7 percent on uncontested jumpers, the sixth lowest rate in the league.
  • Thunder opponents have shot 30.5 percent on contested jumpers, the second lowest rate in the league.
  • Thunder opponents have shot 72.2 percent from the free-throw line, the second lowest rate in the league. (What goes around comes around; they ranked 28th in free-throw defense last season.)
  • Only one other defense (the Lakers) ranks in the top 10 in each of those three categories. Five other teams rank in the top 10 in two of the three.

Now, the definition of what’s contested (see above) allows for some leeway. It could mean that the defender is six inches from the shooter with his hand in his face, and it could mean that he’s 48 inches away with his hands down. Maybe the Thunder contest to a different degree than other teams. But they don’t contest a lot.

Eliminating the possible “luck” factor, the Thunder are still a good defensive team. If OKC opponents had shot the league average on contested jumpers, uncontested jumpers and free throws, the Thunder would have allowed 86 more points this season (about 1.5 more per 100 possessions) and would rank seventh in defensive efficiency (in part because there’s a dropoff after the top seven).

But they have had trouble slowing down Golden State, one of the league’s best jump-shooting teams, the team that has been the most efficient against the Thunder this season, and a possible first-round playoff opponent. In his three games against the Thunder, only 21 of Stephen Curry‘s 66 field goal attempts have been contested (just three of 22 on Nov. 14).

Some other good jump-shooting teams — Atlanta, Miami and Portland — also have had decent success against the Thunder. Others — Dallas and Phoenix — have not.

In this first full season of player tracking, there are still some things to figure out. And maybe things will be different defensively for the Thunder with a healthy Russell Westbrook. But if Brooks’ goal is to contest every shot, his team has some work to do.

FYI (because some readers have asked): While you can find contested and uncontested shots in the Player Tracking tab of our NBA.com/stats boxscores, we don’t yet have them on the season level. That’s in the works.

Blogtable: Who’s The Best Defender?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Getting Evan | Defensive showdown | The story of the Suns


Roy Hibbert (left) and LeBron James (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Roy Hibbert (left) and LeBron James (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

LeBron wants it. Roy Hibbert does, too. Who’s your Defensive Player of the Year?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comLeBron James deserves to have one or more of these in his trophy case before the chiseling begins on that mountainside (he should have won it last year, IMO). But the DPOY traditionally has been a big-man’s award — they’ve won 22 of the 31 presented so far — and it probably will be again. Roy Hibbert will benefit from the Pacers’ W-L success, their league-best defense and the credit all involved give to the Indiana center for his rim protection and mastering of the “law of verticality.” Obviously, there’s an apples-oranges issue at play, because these two guys play defense so differently. Hibbert is the Great Dane stationed at the palace gate as much to intimdate as to actually thwart, while James is one of those hounds you always hear about being unleashed to chase down and attack the bad guys.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comLeBron James.  Taking nothing away from the job Roy Hibbert has done, but if needed, James can guard every position 1-5 on the court.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comI’m going Hibbert, by gosh. He is anchoring the league’s No. 1 defense by a wide margin, he is third in blocks (just barely behind Serge Ibaka for second) and he is No. 1 in the all-important opponent field-goal percentage at the rim, a category now cataloged by the SportVU cameras and can be found on NBA.com/Stats.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comHibbert. James would not be a bad pick, but Hibbert is the anchor of the defense that over the last couple seasons, and in 2013-14 in particular, has turned into a title threat because of defense. From opening night on, he has earned the award through about three-quarters of the season. Let’s keep in mind, though, that the actual award will be for all 82 games. There’s still enough time left for a change at the top.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE

Serge Ibaka defends Kevin Garnett
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE )

John Schuhmann, NBA.comHibbert. The Pacers are the best defensive team of the last 30 years and four points per 100 possessions better than the second-ranked Bulls. Hibbert is the fulcrum of that defense, by far the biggest reason why they defend the restricted area much better than any other team, and an important part of their third-ranked 3-point defense. After Hibbert, I’d have Paul George, Andre Iguodala and Joakim Noah in some order. The Heat aren’t even in the top 10 defensively and have been better on that end with LeBron off the floor. He had a much better case in any of the previous three seasons.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I think Serge Ibaka has been the most impressive defender I’ve seen this season, LeBron James plowing through his forearm notwithstanding. Seriously, the Thunder big man has been his usual, shot-blocking nemesis self all season. He’s one of the few guys in the league capable of changing games with his defensive presence alone. Hibbert is an excellent post defender, at times, and no one covers more ground or is more versatile than LeBron. Neither one of them, though, has been as consistently brilliant as Ibaka has been on the defensive end this season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. But I do think LeBron has more value as a defender than Hibbert because of his versatility. And following that same line of thinking, I think the Pacers’ own Paul George might even be a more valuable defender than Hibbert. And for whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t vote for him for Defensive Player of the Year, but I’ve loved watching Patrick Beverly playing defense this season — he is absolutely fearless and aggressive and just a ton of fun to watch.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I want to name someone who’s flying a little under the radar but who’s really putting up big numbers: Anthony Davis. The Pelicans big man leads the league in blocks, 3.04 per game, opponents field goal made at rim per game (2.9) and grabs 10.2 rebounds per game. He’s turning into a truly intimidating presence inside. And he continues to improve.

Aldo Miguel Aviñante, NBA PhilippinesRoy Hibbert is my pick for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s the anchor to the league’s toughest defense. Hibbert has fully grasped the verticality rule and with his heft and height, and he’s made a living inside with his dominating presence, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

Will Thunder Miss Perkins Or Not?

The Thunder are losing one of their vocal leaders in Kendrick Perkins. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Thunder are losing one of their vocal leaders in Kendrick Perkins. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – That’s one way to get Kendrick Perkins out of the lineup. Analytics faithful have long called for him to sit and so, too, has a growing segment of the league’s friendliest fans.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 6-foot-10, 280-pound brute is probably more renowned now for his imposing scowl than for his imposing, no-holds-barred approach that helped the Celtics win one title and might have cost them another when an injury forced him out of Game 7 against the Lakers in 2010.

On Tuesday, the Thunder announced Perkins will miss up to six weeks after undergoing surgery on his left groin, an injury that occurred in the third quarter of Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat. On Sunday, the Thunder lost again to the Los Angeles Clippers, and afterwards Perkins’ former coach Doc Rivers couldn’t help but give Perkins some good-natured ribbing.

The Clippers torched the Thunder for 72 points in the first half with 27 coming on the fastbreak. Rivers was asked if OKC missed Perkins’ defense considering the plodding center probably wouldn’t have been much help chasing Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down the floor.

“He was good for us,” Rivers said regarding Perkins in those Boston days. “That was in his younger days when he ran the 40 [yard dash] in 4.5 [seconds], I think. Now he might run it in 44.5, but I’m not sure — maybe 50, I don’t know.”

Rivers got a good chuckle out of it, but will the Thunder and their fans be laughing without the polarizing big man to pick on? Here’s Rivers again, this time being a bit more serious about the less visible impact Perkins has on his team.

“Where he helps you, even if it’s not that [in transition], he’s a voice that tells you you’re not getting back,” Rivers said. “People don’t understand how important those voices are when you have a guy talking your defense, holding people accountable, you miss that. They missed that [Sunday].”

The Thunder will likely replace Perkins in the starting lineup with impressive, 7-foot, 250-pound rookie Steven Adams, 20, a raw talent, but a physical player and a hustler. Veteran Nick Collison will likely see a bump in minutes and rising, two-way power forward Serge Ibaka will likely see more time at center in smaller lineups.

Like Rivers, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has long praised Perkins for delivering the less-heralded, but necessary aspects of the game like hard-nosed defense and bone-jarring screens that spring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others for open looks.

Durant, too, has always had his teammate’s back.

“He’s one of those guys that sacrifice and puts it all on the line for his team,” Durant said of Perkins prior to this season as the 11th-year center returned from hefty criticism following last year’s second-round loss to Memphis. “He’s a guy that I go to war with every single night and a brother for life, so I’m behind him 110 percent.”

But by any metric it becomes increasingly difficult to defend Perkins’ 19.7 mpg, which ranks as his lowest in the last eight seasons. His inclusion against smaller, quicker lineups such as the Heat is even harder to defend. Perkins is averaging 3.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg and is shooting 44.2 percent, low for a player who attempts nearly 80 percent of his shots from within eight feet.

The Thunder’s offensive efficiency is 102.7 points per 100 possessions with Perkins on the floor and it soars to 110.1 with him off. Their defensive efficiency barely fluctuates with him on or off the floor.

The Thunder traded for Perkins in February 2011 believing they’d need him for years to come to battle the Los Angeles Lakers’ frontcourt combo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Obviously that didn’t last and utilizing smaller lineups has become the trend throughout the league.

OKC’s regular starting lineup of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins has played 287 minutes together with an offensive rating of 96.7 and a defensive rating of 104.2. The likely new starting lineup with Adams replacing Perkins has played 82 minutes together with an offensive rating of 100.4 and a defensive rating that nose dives off the chart at 122.0.

Numbers are meaningful, but can also be interpreted in different ways when comparing lineup combinations. All we can do now is watch the games and try to determine if the Thunder indeed miss Perkins’ nearly 20 minutes a game, or if he’s really been more of a hindrance all along.

Hang Time One-On-One … with Reggie Jackson

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Reggie Jackson knew it wasn’t his job to hold on to forever. He knew Russell Westbrook would be back and that his role would change, yet again. Any young point guard in Oklahoma City has to know his role.

But not every young point guard would excel the way Jackson has this season in Westbrook’s absence. The Thunder didn’t miss a beat this season with Jackson at the controls (they went 22-8 without Westbrook in action), and in fact, they were just as good or better in nearly every category with Jackson in the starting five. For his part, Jackson averaged 14.4 points, 4.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 30 starting assignments.

With Westbrook back, though, Jackson shifts back to his role off the bench and becomes a key cog in the Thunder machine led by Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, that will square off against the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, ABC). 

Thunder coach Scott Brooks has a quality insurance policy in Jackson, who joined us during All-Star Weekend for the  latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series to talk about his game, his role, learning how to work the right way in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder are headed and much more:


VIDEO: Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson personifies the “next man up” mantra in OKC

LeBron Puts Charge Into Thunder, MVP Race


VIDEO: LeBron, Miami thump Thunder in Thursday’s showdown

OKLAHOMA CITY – Weeks before Russell Westbrook knew he would need a third knee surgery, back when he was rolling right along with his Oklahoma City Thunder, and so too were Portland and San Antonio, he was asked to rank his team’s prowess in the Western Conference.

“I think we’re the best team in the NBA,” Westbrook said. “I don’t think about the West or the East. We’re the best in the NBA.”

The Thunder entered Thursday night’s showdown against the Miami Heat boasting the league’s best record. But anointing a best team isn’t something to be done in December or February. And so it was on OKC’s home floor, on the night Westbrook made his long-awaited return to a standing ovation, that LeBron James provided this stark reminder to all: He is not only the reigning two-time MVP, but the two-time reigning Finals MVP to boot.

He delivered an overwhelming start, scoring the Heat’s first 12 points, deflecting passes, running the floor and dunking with no remorse as Miami roared to a 34-17 lead after one quarter. The Thunder made several runs, got as close as five points, but each time the Heat, led by a LeBron growing more menacing by the game, answered with force.

Whatever has James fired up, whether it’s Durant’s frontrunning MVP candidacy, the Mount Rushmore volcano, the whipping Oklahoma City wind, he is using it to his advantage. Thursday’s game-high 33 points in 33 minutes on 15-for-22 shooting — 14-for-17 inside the arc — was his 13th 30-point game since Jan. 1, and his fourth in a row. He has seven of them in the last nine games going back to the Jan. 29 home loss to the Thunder that put on exclamation point on Durant’s stupendous MVP run.

The only way the Thunder found to stop the bleeding was to actually make James bleed. He got clobbered with about six minutes left as he aggressively attacked Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka at the rim. Somehow he made the bucket, then crashed to the floor with blood flowing from his nose. He left the game and wouldn’t return, but the damage was done as Miami held on for a 103-81 rout.

He was ruled free of a concussion after the game, and will have until Sunday to recuperate before the black-and-blue Chicago Bulls come calling in Miami. The Heat will take a four-game win streak into that game as they completed a six-game all-Western Conference road trip 5-1, ringing up West contenders OKC and the L.A. Clippers, plus West playoff teams Golden State, Phoenix and Dallas with James shooting 57.1 percent on the trip.

If this is Durant’s MVP to lose, at least now we must consider the race officially on.

Of course, the regular-season MVP award is secondary to a Heat three-peat or the Thunder capturing their first championship, but history is attached to this MVP. No one has won three in a row since Larry Bird did it from 1983-86. Before Bird it was Wilt Chamberlain from 1965-68. And before Wilt it was Bill Russell from 1960-63.

Chicago’s Derrick Rose spoiled James’ first run at three in 2011, and now Durant is threatening to do it again. Westbrook, who has watched every mesmerizing performance from the bench as he recovered, said Durant is clearly the MVP as of now.

“It’s obvious, it’s obvious,” Westbrook said. “I mean he has so many different stats throughout the season that nobody has done. He’s done a great job of leading us as a group. He’s done it in a way that I don’t think nobody has done it this year.”

It wasn’t so obvious Thursday. Durant finished with 28 points on 10-for-22 shooting, but he was just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc and he even missed three of his 10 free throws. As James attacked early, Durant played it passively, perhaps hoping to give Westbrook an opportunity to gather his legs and find his touch. Whatever it was, the Heat defense walled him off. Durant turned it over three times and was 0-for-2 six minutes in; James had 14 points, six on dunks and Miami was off to a 20-8 start.

“He did what very few can do, that’s impact and set the tone on both sides of the court,” Spoelstra said. “He’s an absolute, true throwback in terms of being a two-way player and understanding how important it is. While he wasn’t necessarily on Durant to start, he was very active with his hands and blowing up pick-and-roll coverages with his speed and his awareness, and obviously he was just so aggressive with that mentality, everybody just gained confidence from that.”

James has the Heat surging, and quietly now just 1 1/2 games behind Indiana. Meanwhile, the Thunder face a period of transition as Westbrook and Durant work on the fly to regain the form that led to a 21-4 record before their three-time All-Star point went under the knife again.

It will all make for a fascinating stretch drive and a very meaningful race for MVP.

“I’ve never put pressure on myself to receive the [MVP] award,” James said. “I just went out and played my game. That was what happened out of it. And obviously, for me, I try to be the MVP every night for our team and just try to put us in position to win.”

He did so, emphatically, Thursday night.


VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew discuss the Heat-Thunder matchup

Talking Defense With Scott Brooks

VIDEO: Serge Ibaka turns defense into offense vs. the Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – When you think of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant‘s scoring comes to mind first. He leads the league by a wide margin, after all. But the Thunder have been a better defensive team than offensive team this season. Heading into Thursday’s matchup with the Heat, they rank sixth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency.

To be a true title contender, you have to be good on both ends of the floor, and the Thunder are the only team that has ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency each of the last three seasons.

That’s a credit to head coach Scott Brooks, who spoke with NBA.com for a few minutes at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

NBA.com: When looking at teams, I usually evaluate their offense and defense separately. Do you look your offense and defense like that, or is there more a relationship between the how well you play offensively and how well you play defensively?

Brooks: I look at it in a bunch of dimensions. One, I look at it as strictly an offensive team and a defensive team. And I look at it combined, hand in hand. I believe you have to be able to be a be a two-way team in order to have success. Especially in the West, there are so many great teams.

And that’s the thing I take pride in. I know there are so many times when we have to focus on defense, defense, defense, and there are holes. We have to try to repair it. And we do that and the offense becomes stagnant, and you try to fix that up. That’s just part of coaching. You have to find balance, fix the problems as you see them, and try to envision problems before they even happen.

NBA.com: We always think that good defense leads to better offense, but I once asked Jerry Sloan how his team could get better defensively, and he said it started with better floor balance on offense. For your team, does one end of the floor help the other more than vice-versa?

Brooks: We say that the start of good defense is a good shot. Also, we say that the start of a good offense is a rebound off a miss. So they go hand in hand. Our guys really believe that. They’ve done a good job of focusing on making teams miss and trying to score in transition before the defense is set. And then, focusing on getting a good shot and having good floor balance, so you can get back in transition and get set before the offense attacks you.

NBA.com: Do you value certain things defensively more than others? Do you care about forcing turnovers?

Brooks: I don’t look into forcing turnovers. If we’re in a defensive mind set, we’re going to get our fair share of steals. I’m really concerned about making sure that every shot is contested. For basketball players on all levels, it’s proven that if you’re shooting contested shots, you have less of a chance of making them. So we focus on that. And we focus on making sure we rebound. Our rebounding numbers have gone up the last few years.

Thunder defense, last four seasons

Season DefRtg Rank OppeFG% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank Opp FTA/FGA Rank
2010-11 104.0 13 49.3% 11 73.6% 17 14.5% 19 .307 19
2011-12 100.0 9 46.5% 4 72.1% 23 14.6% 23 .270 13
2012-13 99.2 4 46.9% 2 73.4% 17 15.2% 17 .254 8
2013-14 99.3 3 47.8% 4 75.5% 9 15.3% 16 .286 13

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppeFG% = Opponent (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions

NBA.com: Defense has been a big part of your bench success. Your best defensive numbers have been with your reserves on the floor. Is that just about them playing against other reserves, or is there more to it than that?

Brooks: We have some toughness on our bench. There’s no question. I think people don’t give our toughness, as a team, enough credit. They don’t look at guys like KD and say “That’s a tough guy.” He’s so athletic. He’s slender. But he’s tough.

With our bench, we feel that [Derek] Fisher, [Nick] Collison, Reggie [Jackson], Jeremy [Lamb], Steven [Adams], and Perry [Jones] bring that type of toughness. Obviously, when you’re going against the other team’s bench, that kind of negates the difference. But I think our bench has done a good job.

I try not to really look at our team as two units. I know, as a player, it kind of bothered me that … “Hey, bench guys go over there and shoot” or first team and second team and all that. If you’re going to talk about the first team and second team, don’t talk about “team” to me. That was kind of my mind set as a player.

So I look at our group as a team and with the flexibility that we have, we can mix and match our starters and the guys that come off the bench and form a pretty good unit.

NBA.com: On that note, your defense has been very good (in 234 minutes) with Russell Westbrook and Jackson on the floor together. Does your defense start on the perimeter or on the interior?

Brooks: That’s a question that I go back and forth on. I come up with the conclusion that all five guys have to be engaged. We have to have Serge [Ibaka] and [Kendrick Perkins] ready to protect the paint. We have to have Russell, KD and Thabo [Sefolosha] ready to man the perimeter. I think both perimeter and interior guys have to be ready to play. There are too many skilled players in this league to relax at one position.

NBA.com: And when Russell and Reggie are on the floor together, can you be more disruptive?

Brooks: I haven’t really dove into those two playing together. That’s something that we can always go to. I like it more as an offensive unit, because Reggie gives us a third penetrator.

You just have to understand who they can guard. Russell can guard just about any guard in this league. And Reggie, you have to be able to pick and choose who he can guard. One of them’s going to have to guard a bigger guard. Some of the guards in the league don’t post up, but some do.

Trust Binds Brooks, Young Stars To OKC


VIDEO: Take a closer look at Scott Brooks’ coaching style and strategy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Brooks does a bad job of bragging. As he continued to redirect credit for Oklahoma City’s ongoing success to a meticulous organizational structure and its young stars, the Thunder’s coach, self-deprecating to a fault, spotted Wilson Taylor in the distance.

Taylor is the club’s 30-year-old manager of team operations. The morning shootaround had ended moments earlier and Taylor was busily attending to some normally behind-the-scenes tasks at the other end of the team’s sprawling, immaculately lit training facility eight miles north of downtown. Like Brooks and multiple members of OKC’s staff — general manager Sam Presti, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, roster rock Nick Collison – Taylor’s been with the team since it opened shop here in the summer of 2008.

“People don’t talk about this, but Sam has done a great job hiring, not necessarily me, but everybody in this building,” Brooks said in an interview last week with NBA.com. “You talk to Wilson right there, he understands that his job is to get our players better. And we all have the same mentality, from our therapists, from our sports scientists, from our trainers, from our equipment managers; we all understand our job is to get our players better, and I take pride in all those guys.”

Still, Brooks, 48, is the coach. And he’s overseeing one of the most unique and potentially historic team-building processes in the modern, free-agent-frenzied NBA. From the start of his career, Brooks has been coaching a rising icon (Durant), a perennial all-NBA player (Westbrook) and a roster that boasts, even after Jeff Green and James Harden‘s departures 20 months apart, seven homegrown players and six who are 25 or younger.

In the last four seasons, the Thunder have challenged the Lakers in the first round, made the West finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 before last season’s hope got short-circuited in the West semis after a Westbrook knee injury.

Now here they are again.

The bedrock for all this success lies deeper than shrewd drafting. It lies with the bond Brooks forged early on with his two divergent stars. That put the youthful crew on a developmental fast track and put OKC on the map.

On Sunday, Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans because his Thunder sit atop the heated Western Conference with 42 wins in 54 games. Holler if you called that following Westbrook’s third knee surgery the day after he dropped a Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

The only team in the league to rank in the top five in offensive and defensive rating? The Thunder. They’ve popped East powerhouses Miami and Indiana by a combined 41 points.

This is arguably the deepest OKC squad ever and, assuming Westbrook resumes his season in the coming days, the Thunder are the favorite to win the West. (more…)

Without Westbrook, Ibaka Keeps Soaring

VIDEO: Serge Ibaka talks about OKC’s winning ways on Arena Link

OKLAHOMA CITY – How many Western Conference power forwards do you check off before getting to Serge Ibaka?

Blake Griffin. Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge. Dirk Nowitzki. Tim Duncan. Anthony Davis. Zach Randolph. David Lee. Hard to quibble. All are All-Stars, recent past or present.

“There [are] so many good power forwards, and so many good point guards, in the West that he does kind of get lost in the shuffle,” Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But we understand what he brings to our team. He’s definitely [at] an All-Star level in my eyes and what he does for our team: He rebounds, he blocks shots, he alters shots, his rebounds have gone up, his shooting percentage is high, his points have gone up.”

Ibaka is also only 24 years old, which makes his progression to a career-best 15.0 ppg (11th in the league among power forwards), career-best 8.8 rpg (8th), 2.5 bpg (2nd) and 19 double-doubles (10th) midway through his fifth season seem astronomical, and his potential off the charts. That the chiseled, 6-foot-10 force of nature, taken 24th in the 2008 Draft (his first NBA season was 2009-10), is under contract with the Thunder through the 2016-17 season at a rate that never eclipses $12.35 million is another feather in management’s already blooming cap.

Ibaka and Russell Westbrook have developed such a lethal connection that when the point guard left the lineup after the Christmas Day game to undergo a third surgery on his right knee, there was some trepidation that Ibaka’s offensive contributions would suffer.

That has not occurred because Ibaka and Kevin Durant have been terrific together. Durant’s has assisted on one-third of (54-for-160) Ibaka’s baskets since Westbrook went down. Since, Ibaka has averaged 15.9 ppg on 56.7-percent shooting.

“We have a better connection in the halfcourt offense,” Ibaka said of he and Durant whereas he and Westbrook work so well together in the open floor. “He has confidence in me. I know when he is going to pass to me. I just have to catch the ball. My first part of this is I owe it to him to get him open, so when he can get open, the defense starts to go to him, so then I know, ‘OK, now it’s my turn.’ I am going to get open and I know he is going to pass it to me, so I am going to make plays for myself and for my teammates.”

Ibaka’s midrange game continues to be one of the best in the league. He is hitting 47.8 percent of his shots taken outside the paint and inside the 3-point arc. Coming off a screen, Durant typically gets doubled and he finds Ibaka for the pick-and-pop jumper he loves from the top of the circle, or Ibaka rolls to the basket, an aspect of his game Brooks says has vastly improved.

“When he does roll, he’s ready to catch and finish right away and he’s seeing the pickers much quicker,” Brooks said.”That sounds easy and looks easy, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that. You have to be able to catch the ball on the fly and put yourself in a position not to get a charge and, if there is a guy, you have to make sure you make the right pass, and you have to do that all within a second.

“He’s understanding, with all the work that we’ve put him through in practice to simulate those opportunities, and I think it’s really paying off.”

Ibaka’s true shooting percentage (adjusted to include the value of 3-pointers and free throws) is 54.0 percent, fourth-best among power forwards behind Amir Johnson, Kenneth Faried and Boris Diaw. But Ibaka averages, at the minimum, four more shots per game and almost five more points per game.

According to NBA.com/stats, Ibaka is connecting on 49.2 percent of his shots from 10-14 feet; 46.3 percent from 15-19 feet; and 38.9 percent from 20-24 feet. He’s 13-for-37 for 35.1 percent from beyond the arc, a percentage plenty of guards could live with.

So, what happens when Westbrook returns as he is scheduled to do after the All-Star break? Ibaka smiles.

“I am going to have Russ and I am going to have Kevin,” Ibaka said. “We are going to be more dangerous. You know, Russ is more go-go, ‘I’m open;’ me and Kevin [are] more halfcourt. I think it is going to be great, man. I can’t wait to have Russ back. I can’t wait.”

Durant’s Streak Ends, Thunder Still Good


VIDEO: Thunder rout Nets for 10th straight win

BROOKLYN – Kevin Durant‘s streak of 12 straight games of scoring 30 or more points came to an end on Friday, because his team is just too good. Durant scored 26 points on just 12 shots in the first three quarters, but sat the entire fourth of a 120-95 blowout of the Brooklyn Nets.

And maybe the thing that has gone under the radar — as Durant has been shooting the lights out and establishing himself as the MVP favorite — is that the Oklahoma City Thunder are the best team in basketball right now.

Friday’s rout — in which Brooklyn set an NBA record for fewest rebounds (17) in a game — was OKC’s 10th straight win. It’s been a hard earned streak that has included wins over Houston (on the road), Golden State, Portland, San Antonio (on the road), Miami (on the road) and Brooklyn (on the road), who had the league’s best January record entering Friday.

They’ve absorbed Russell Westbrook‘s latest setback and have played their best ball of the season. Their All-Star point guard has played just 25 of their 48 games and they hold the best record in the NBA at 38-10. They’re one of two teams that rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

You don’t do that behind the performance of just one guy. Yes, Durant has played better than anybody in the league this season. But the Thunder have proven to be much deeper than anyone could have predicted, with Perry Jones being the latest young reserve to make the most of an opportunity to play.

Throughout the night on Friday, the Nets tried to get the ball out of Durant’s hands, doubling him almost every time he caught the ball, as they did late in their Jan. 2 win in Oklahoma City. The plan mostly worked, but it just allowed one of Durant’s teammates to make a play.

“We knew what they were going to do in terms of doubling on the catch,” Durant said, “and we were moving the ball quick, and guys were knocking down shots.”

Durant tallied seven assists as five of his teammates scored in double figures. Serge Ibaka shot a perfect 12-for-12 from the field.

“Durant has been the guy getting the headlines,” Paul Pierce said, “but if you look across during the winning streak, they’ve had a number of guys step up.

“That’s just a great player making his other teammates better.”

So, in a game in which he shot a mere 10-for-12 and had Barclays Center buzzing from the opening minute, Durant’s streak came to an end. He’s fine with that.

“Man, I’m glad that’s over with,” he said. “I’d much rather take the win. That’s my type of game, just playing how the game is played. If they double, make the pass. Just play easy. I wasn’t trying to force anything. That streak was good while it lasted, but that was the least of my concerns.”

“If he cared about the streak,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks joked, “he should’ve made those two shots.”

Thunder record and efficiency

Timeframe W L OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
10-game winning streak (since 1/16) 10 0 116.2 1 103.4 9 +12.9 1
Since Westbrook surgery (12/27) 15 5 110.0 4 101.2 7 +8.8 1
Season 38 10 108.0 4 99.2 3 +8.8 1

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Film Study: LeBron And KD, Head-To-Head

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The season is only 55 percent complete, so it’s way too early to make any kind of call in the MVP race. By leading the Oklahoma City Thunder on an eight-game winning streak without co-star Russell Westbrook and going on a ridiculous scoring binge along the way, Kevin Durant has seemingly taken the lead over LeBron James.

But this is the time of year when James led the Miami Heat to 27 straight wins last season, a streak that included a win in Oklahoma City. Head-to-head matchups could linger in the minds of voters, and the Heat have won six straight games against the Thunder, going back to Game 2 of the 2012 Finals. They’ll look to make it seven in a row on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Miami, and will have another meeting right after the All-Star break.

Because Durant and James (mostly) play the same position, they truly are going head to head, though one typically defends the other more than vice versa.

In their two meetings last season, James defended Durant on 67 percent of Oklahoma City’s possessions when two were on the floor together. The only time he wasn’t Durant’s primary defender was in the third quarter of the Feb. 14 meeting, a game which the Heat led by 17 at halftime. Dwyane Wade took on Durant duties for most those 12 minutes.

Durant, meanwhile, only defended James on only 44 percent of Miami’s possessions when the two were on the floor together. Thabo Sefolosha was tasked with defending James most of the other possessions, though it was Russell Westbrook‘s job in the fourth quarter of that February game.

Durant and James were their team’s best defenders on their opponent’s best players. Both scored more efficiently when being guarded by other defenders.

Over the two games, when James was guarding him, Durant scored 0.95 (35/37) points per scoring chance (shot from the field or trip to the line). When James wasn’t guarding him, Durant scored 1.48 points per scoring chance (37/25).

When Durant was guarding him, James scored just 0.88 (15/17) points per scoring chance. When Durant wasn’t guarding him, James scored 1.71 (53/31).

Part of the discrepancy is transition opportunities when nobody was really defending them. But it’s clear that each was the other’s toughest matchup.

Nothing easy one-on-one

James is seen as the better defender, but Durant is so darn long. Though they totaled 140 points in the two games, neither guy could get anything easy against the other.

Here’s Durant in an iso against James, hitting a really tough shot.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant hits a tough, isolation shot vs. LeBron James

And here’s a James post-up, where Durant contests a 16-foot, step-back jumper…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant contests LeBron James’ step-back jumper

Easier against the other guys

In Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have another defender with the size and quickness to make things tough on James. But Ibaka only defending James on a couple of switches or transition matchups last season. Shane Battier has typically defended Durant when James has been off the floor, but doesn’t have James’ size and strength.

Wade and Sefolosha really can’t handle the job.

Here’s Durant going right around Wade for an and-one on an iso…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant breezes past Dwyane Wade in an iso situation

And here’s James muscling through Sefolosha on a weak-side duck-in.


VIDEO: Thabo Sefolosha can’t stop LeBron James on this play

Getting the ball out of KD’s hands

While James defended Durant more than Durant defended James, he would have more help from possession to possession. When Durant runs a high pick-and-roll or comes off a pin-down screen to catch the ball on the wing, the Heat will blitz a second defender at him to force the ball out of his hands.

Here’s one such play from the Christmas game last season, where Durant takes a handoff from Kendrick Perkins and immediately gets double-teamed, forcing him to give up the ball…


VIDEO: The Heat bring a strong double team at Kevin Durant

Here’s a link to the Thunder’s second possession of the Feb. 14 meeting, where two defenders chase Durant as he comes off a pin-down.

Durant on the move

So that Durant doesn’t have to go toe-to-toe with James or face double-teams so much, the Thunder can get him the ball on the move. Here, they use him as a screener and he gets an open shot off a flare to the right wing…


VIDEO: Kevin Durant gets open off a flare screen on the wing

Superstar decoys

When Durant is used as a screener, his defender has a difficult decision to make. If he leaves Durant (like above), he’s giving the league’s leading scorer an open shot. But if he stays at home on Durant, the ball-handler has an opening.

The Heat can use James in a similar fashion. On this play, Chalmers gets an opening, because Westbrook stays attached to James…


VIDEO: LeBron James is used as a decoy in the Heat offense

Forcing the switch

The Heat also use James as a screener to get him matched up with a smaller defender. Here, he gets Westbrook in the post, draws the attention of Perkins, and finds Chris Bosh for an easy dunk late in the Christmas game…


VIDEO: The Heat force the Thunder to make a defensive switch

A lot more than just one-on-one

Wednesday is a matchup of the two best basketball players in the world and will make some kind of impact on MVP voting. But how Durant and James play goes well beyond their defense on each other. It’s also about how their coaches and teammates set up their touches, how they take advantage of other matchups and how much help their defenders get from their teammates.