As they backpedaled on defense, Steve Nash and Aaron Brooks took turns shouting instructions to their team. In the same manner, they both would raise both arms and clinch each of their hands into a fist.
It was the point guards' hand signal for the Phoenix Suns to get into a zone last Wednesday against the Thunder.
Each time they did, the Thunder struggled to find an answer.
That's been a theme all season.
There have been numerous losses this season in which the Thunder has admitted it couldn't properly counter a team's zone defense. On several occasions, the defensive scheme has slowed or shut down the Thunder's offensive attack. With the playoffs beginning in just two weeks, now is the time for the Thunder to settle on a solution.
The last thing the Thunder needs to run into in the postseason, it seems, is an opponent that implements and executes a zone defense. Fortunately for Oklahoma City, the Denver Nuggets, the Thunder's current first-round opponent if the standings hold, use little to no zone. But Portland, which is in sixth place and only three games behind Denver, mixed in a zone throughout several stretches of the last two meetings. And, like Phoenix, it bothered the Thunder.
The Thunder's struggles against a zone have largely been caused by the same problem that plagues many young teams. OKC has grown hesitant the moment a team switches. The Thunder sends too many passes around the perimeter rather than exploring possible gaps within the teeth of the defense. Those passes are a good show of patience, but they generally lead to a 3-point shot that plays right into the defense's hand.
At times, the Thunder also has been hampered by Thabo Sefolosha's inability to consistently knock down perimeter shots, which has allowed defenses to essentially ignore him and clog the paint.
“We haven't been used to playing against zone,” said point guard Eric Maynor. “But as soon as we can get to where we can get that ball inside and attack the gaps it's going to be real easy.”
That Suns game last Wednesday provided one possible remedy.
As the game wore on, Russell Westbrook began to bull his way to the rim. Then, it was the Suns who didn't have an answer. Westbrook's speed applied so much pressure on Phoenix that the Thunder was able to break open the game before eventually securing an 18-point blowout.
“Russell's as quick at getting into the paint as anybody in the league,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “When he does that, it puts a lot of pressure on the zone. He's our best attack guy. And he has to use that. We can't settle for outside shots. When Russell attacks, it draws defenders and he can kick it out for open 3s. That's when you make those shots. When Russell does that, it makes us a good zone offensive team.”
Or as Maynor put it: “If he continues to do that then teams can't play zone.”