It's a word that in the minds of most ballers is synonymous with quit, a strategy that typically screams to opponents “we can't guard you.”
Most players on most teams are too prideful to concede to that tactic.
But in Game 3 on Thursday night, it's what saved the Thunder from falling into a virtually impossible 3-0 hole in the Western Conference Finals.
The Thunder slowed the potent San Antonio Spurs offense unlike no team has since late January because it committed to selfless team defense defined by 48 minutes of switching defensive assignments and picking up the slack for any teammate in need.
“They're doing a lot of switching,” said Spurs forward Tim Duncan. “Their length, size and athleticism is a huge advantage for them.”
Only in Game 3 has the Thunder taken advantage of its biggest strengths.
It started with Thabo Sefolosha getting the start defensively against Spurs point guard Tony Parker. After two games defending Parker, guard Russell Westbrook moved over to cover Spurs off-guard Danny Green.
The move worked wonders, as Sefolosha used his height and length as barricades against Parker. Sefolosha on several occasions cut off half the floor and funneled Parker to one side, generally right into areas where additional defenders lurked. Sefolosha also blocked Parker's vision, making passes difficult once the heady point guard picked up his dribble.
“It was more length. Gave them a different look,” said Westbrook, whose pride could have taken the biggest blow but didn't seem affected one bit.
“Like I said before,” he said, “my job is to make sure we win; whatever it is throughout the game that I need to do to make sure of that, that's all that matters.”
When the entire Thunder team bought into that philosophy Thursday, the Spurs had no shot.
Westbrook and Sefolosha, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison, even Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins switched assignments throughout Game 3.
In what quite possibly was the biggest game in Thunder history, the roster's designed and well-documented versatility produced a statement win.
“Our pick-and-roll defense was very good against probably the best pick-and-roll offense,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We did a good job of getting into the ball, did a good job of being up into the ball with our bigs. That was the key, and our other three guys were involved in it. But it's a team defense. I thought everybody was active. Everybody was engaged.”
The word Brooks was careful to not use was switch. In fact, a sly smile creased his face each time he was asked about it Friday. He knows the strategy gave the Spurs fits, and he was careful to not slip up and let the cat out of the bag.
Oklahoma City, however, started switching in earnest late in the opening quarter.
The most stimulating sequence saw Perkins isolated on Parker at the top of the key, Perkins crouching into his defensive stance, clapping his hands at Parker as if to show the point guard he was accepting the challenge of the mighty mismatch. Perkins kept Parker in front of him for the duration of the assignment, refusing to allow the blur to blow by him and break down the Thunder's defense. Parker ultimately settled for a long 2-pointer that bounced off the rim.
Throughout the game, and all over the court, there were many more subtle instances. But each was just as significant.
Durant switched from Tiago Splitter onto Parker, Derek Fisher's man, twice late in the first quarter.
Collison switched from Matt Bonner onto Stephen Jackson, James Harden's man, late in the first quarter.
Ibaka switched from Splitter onto Ginobili, Sefolosha's man, early in the second quarter.
Ibaka switched from Splitter onto Gary Neal, Fisher's man, early in the second quarter.
Durant switched from Boris Diaw onto Parker, Fisher's man, midway through the second period.
By swarming to the ball with multiple defenders, the Thunder effectively took away the Spurs' driving lanes and shut off the paint, where San Antonio scored 50 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 2. On Thursday, the Spurs scored just 24 paint points.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the most effective switch was Ibaka on Ginobili. Parker agreed.
“Definitely,” Parker said. “The way they switched every pick-and-roll with Manu helped a lot in that game.”
There still were gaps in the Thunder's coverage on occasion. For example, midway through the second quarter, Parker received a ball screen from Duncan, forcing Perkins to step up and show himself. But Westbrook just sort of stood in his place, which opened a window for Parker to pass to Duncan in the middle of the floor, the most dangerous part of the court against any defense. Duncan took one dribble toward the basket, making the Thunder's defense collapse on him. When Durant did from the right corner, he left Diaw wide open for 3. Durant closed out fairly well, but Diaw got off a clean shot that the Thunder was fortunate to see miss.
But the blueprint for the Thunder has been unveiled. Now, it's just a matter of sticking to the script.
“If you want to win,” Westbrook said, “you've got to do what you've got to do.”