LOS ANGELES — Since the All-Star break, the Thunder’s defense has been among the worst in the NBA. And after Thursday’s defensive debacle at Phoenix, no end seems to be in sight.
Over the past seven games, Oklahoma City has allowed 109.2 points per game, 47.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.8 percent shooting from 3-point range.
To put those numbers into context, Philadelphia ranks last in opponent scoring on the season at 111 points per game, the Sixers are tied with Detroit for the worst opponent field-goal percentage at 46.9 percent and Milwaukee ranks last in 3-point defense at 38.2 percent.
“We’ve got to get back to getting stops,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We’ve got to get back to having some toughness on the defensive end.”
The defensive void has become too big to overcome.
Offensively, the Thunder is performing at one of its highest levels of the season, scoring 111.1 points per game since the break.
Yet the defensive ineffectiveness has caused OKC to go 3-4 over the past seven games and fall just a half-game above San Antonio for the Western Conference’s top spot.
“Defensively, that’s got to be our identity,” said Russell Westbrook. “We can score with the best (teams), and we can score on anybody at any time. But we got to be able to stop people from scoring.”
Some of the drop off seen over the last two weeks certainly is due to the loss of two defensive-minded starters. Kendrick Perkins has missed the past six games with a groin injury, and Thabo Sefolosha has missed the last three while sidelined with a calf strain. But their absences alone don’t account for how bad the Thunder has been.
OKC has been whipped in transition and from beyond the 3-point line. The Thunder has watched turnovers lead to easy baskets and mounting fouls result in free points.
Three times in this seven-game stretch, the Thunder has allowed at least 40 points in a quarter. Five times the Thunder has allowed at least 10 3-pointers.
Things don’t seem capable of getting much worse, but a blueprint might be emerging for how to make everything better.
It starts with patching up the perimeter defense.
An examination of contested jump shots by NBA.com last week revealed the Thunder ranks last in the category, contesting just 23.8 percent of jump shots. The league average is 30.9 percent.
While that data isn’t available to the general public, a study of the Thunder’s past seven games on NBA.com/stats show similar struggles contesting all field-goal attempts.
Only twice in the past seven games has the Thunder contested more shot attempts than it left uncontested. The tally for all seven is 267 contested to 297 uncontested, meaning 52.6 percent of OKC’s opponent field goals over the past seven games have been uncontested.
A contested shot is defined as a defender being within four feet of a shooter.
Thunder opponents over that stretch have shot 44.9 percent on contested shots but 49.8 percent on uncontested shots.
A deadly mix of poor ball containment and insufficient effort has allowed teams to generate open shots. Right now, the Thunder is struggling mightily to prevent dribble penetration, which breaks down the team’s entire defense. Opposing guards are slithering into the paint at ease and either finishing once there or kicking out to open shooters. Even when the Thunder successfully keeps the ball out front by trapping the ball-handler in the pick and roll, for example, opponents are now firing passes quicker and forcing the Thunder to scramble out to shooters.
“We just got to figure out how to be better on how we make the second and third efforts,” said Kevin Durant. “Trap the ball, contesting shots and getting back in the paint. It’s difficult, but we can do it.”
The Thunder’s chief defensive philosophy is a sound one – form a shell around the painted area and force opponents to shoot contested shots from outside. But OKC is only succeeding at the first part of that. The Thunder has clogged the paint but hasn’t closed out on shooters.
Most of the Thunder’s last seven games illustrate that.
Sixteen of LeBron James’ 22 field-goals attempts were uncontested
Twelve of Matt Barnes’ 14 field-goal attempts were uncontested.
Kyrie Irving and Jarrett Jack combined to get 20 of 33 uncontested shots.
Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Mike Miller and Tayshaun Prince combined to get 28 of 35 uncontested shots.
Fourteen of James Anderson’s 16 field-goal attempts were uncontested.
Thirteen of Gerald Green’s 22 field-goal tries were uncontested.
Some uncontested shots are by design. No team can take away everything, and defenses are forced to be selective.
The Thunder, for instance, allowed Charlotte forward Anthony Tolliver to shoot all 12 of his field-goal attempts without a contest. It was a strategy that allowed OKC to focus more on stopping Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson. The numbers show the Thunder tried to do the same against the Suns. Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker combined to take nine of their 10 shots without a contest while the Thunder worried more about Green, Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris and Channing Frye.
But the Suns got hot and the game plan backfired.
It’s been the story for the Thunder since the break.
“We just got to get better,” Brooks said. “We just got to get better playing that end of the ball.”
Thunder at Lakers
•When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
•Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
•TV: KOCO-5 (Cox 8/HD 705; Dish 5; DirecTV 5; U-verse 5/HD 1005)
•Radio: WWLS-FM 98.1/AM 640