Long and athletic. It’s a term opposing players and coaches use often to describe the Thunder. Oklahoma City’s defense must improve dramatically if the win-loss record is to improve dramatically. The Thunder’s biggest need remains a dominant big man who can erase defensive lapses. But some teams offset interior deficiencies by using length and athleticism to create havoc on the perimeter. "We’ve got guys that are built to be great defenders, a lot of long athletes that play hard,” said Nick Collison. "It’s just a matter of learning how to do it on the NBA level.” It might be a mistake to place much stock in preseason games when star players often play fewer minutes. But compared to last season, the Thunder has improved defensively. Oklahoma City finished 27th in the league in field goal percentage defense (47.5). Through four preseason games, the Thunder ranks eighth (42.6). "We’re playing much better defense,” said Thabo Sefolosha. "We have a young team. But we can use those young legs to play good defense. One thing that’s really important is that we help each other.” Length and athleticism can only produce benefits if a team is strong in defensive principles such as communication, rotating to provide help defense, getting back in transition to prevent easy baskets and getting a stop by grabbing a defensive rebound. "It needs to become habit defensively to where you just react to situations instead of trying to guard a great player and trying to remember where you’re supposed to be,” Collison said. "If we can get to that point, that would be a big jump for us.” Kevin Durant has vowed to become an impact player on both ends, not just an offensive force. Durant leads the Thunder in deflections in preseason, signs his defense has improved. "I have a long ways to go (defensively), but I’ve been working,” Durant said. "That’s one thing I’m trying to do is come to practice every day and be a defender. My team needs me to be a guy who can deflect passes, make it tough on shooters and keep my man in front of me.” Oklahoma City’s emphasis on applying more pressure on the perimeter resulted in 15 steals in an overtime win over Phoenix earlier this week. That’s nearly double last year’s per-game average. Coach Scott Brooks, though, doesn’t place too much emphasis on steals. More important is accumulating steals without taking risks that lead to opponents getting easy shots. "We want aggressive play but not by going for the home run steal,” Brooks said. "That’s something we’ve addressed from the start. Each game it’s, ‘Guys, that’s how you play defense. Active hands.’ We just can’t gamble to go for the steal that’s going to lead to a dunk on the other end.” When asked about the Thunder’s long-term potential, Suns two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash raved about Oklahoma City’s raw skills. "I think they’re a terrific team,” Nash said. "They’re very long, very athletic. They have a lot of versatility. They have guys who are shooters, guys who can penetrate. "No matter what people say about them being a team of the future, I think they’re going to be a very good team this year.” Especially if they learn how to utilize their length and athleticism defensively.