The painted area under the Thunder’s basket is a scary place these days.
The same trade that marked a complete turnover in the Oklahoma City frontcourt marked a similarly total change in the Thunder’s identity on the defensive end. Gone are the days when opposing big men could exploit the undersized pairing of Jeff Green, who now primarily plays at the small forward position behind Celtic stalwart Paul Pierce, and Nenad Krstic, the offensively-minded seven-footer.
Lying in wait for slashers and drivers now is the abundance of hip checks and length in the form of newly-acquired center Kendrick Perkins and freshly-anointed starter Serge Ibaka.
Off the bench, the understated arrival of former Charlotte Bobcat Nazr Mohammed has completed the significant improvement to an Oklahoma City forward line rotation that already included Nick Collison.
“That’s our house, and we don’t let anything come into our house,” Perkins said of the new gang of bigs’ patrolling of the paint.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst painted the picture perfectly. In a 96-85 loss to the Thunder Wednesday, the Heat had begun to show their frustration at Oklahoma City’s physical play. Driving lanes were quickly closed, hands were on shots. It was hell for a team that relies so heavily on isolation play.
And that was with the second unit in.
“When healthy, Oklahoma City now has one of the deepest, tallest and most versatile rotation of big men in the league,” Windhorst wrote.
The newcomers have meshed more quickly than most could have thought, and the switch has turned Oklahoma City’s bottom-half defense almost instantly elite. Before the all-star break, the Thunder’s opponents scored 101.1 points per contest on 46 percent shooting. In the ten games since Mohammed made his debut in blue, the Thunder has allowed just 94.8 points a game, good for seventh in the league.
In the Perkins era, Oklahoma City has yet to surrender 90 points.
The stiflingly successful defense starts down low, but filters out to the perimeter. Wing defenders can afford to go for the steal, and the need for help on pick and rolls has diminished significantly, so players can stay home, letting the frontcourt defend their “house.”
The result is an across-the-board improvement of the Thunder defense. The last 10 games have seen opponent three point shooting drop four percent, steals are up nearly two swipes a game, and Oklahoma City is rejecting a league-leading 7.5 shots a contest, a staggering 4.1 coming from Ibaka alone.
Even the offense is benefitting from the team’s new look. In the same period, points off turnovers and on the break have the Thunder’s offense putting up 106.7 points a game, third best in the league, and more than two points better than their season average.
Most importantly, Oklahoma City is 9-1, and outscoring opponents by a decisive 12 points per contest.
It’s not just skill or instinct behind the recent defensive surge.
Perkins has made it clear that communication and toughness are the new letters of the law. He barks signals, and his new teammates echo and execute. The team has imposed a ‘no layups rule’. And boy, has it been enforced.
If the Thunder were a nuisance to league elites when they were a fraternal, chummy band of brothers, they’re a definite threat when some ‘ticked off’ is added to the recipe.