The Washington Post Sunday

Thunder’s defense makes it a threat

- FANCY STATS BY MOHAMMAD DAKHIL Excerpted from washington­

The Oklahoma City Thunder had issues on defense last season. It lost defensive player of the year candidate Andre Roberson for the season, while Carmelo Anthony’s offensive gifts couldn’t cover up his shortcomin­gs on defense.

Things got worse in the playoffs. In the Thunder’s series against Utah, the Jazz constantly targeted Anthony by running pick-and-rolls to get him in mismatches. In the 194 minutes Anthony was on the floor, he had a defensive rating of 108.2. The team improved to 94.9 when he was off the court. To make things worse, he wasn’t bringing anything on the other end, providing an offensive rating of 95.6.

It was clear heading into the offseason that the Thunder could not depend on Anthony, so they traded him to the Atlanta Hawks, who subsequent­ly bought him out. Anthony wasn’t the only problem with the Thunder defense: It was all too common for Oklahoma City players not to help out teammates. This year, things are different. Coach Billy Donovan has the defense moving on a string and always ready to rotate, making the Thunder appear to be the team that can contend with the Warriors in the West.

Paul George, who has made three all-defensive teams in his career, is returning to the two-way player he was in Indiana, while Russell Westbrook also looks more stout defensivel­y.

Almost everyone who played for the Thunder in 2017-18 and is also getting major minutes this season has improved his individual defensive rating. Even Dennis Schroder’s defensive rating has dropped from 110.8 with Atlanta to 99.8 this season with Oklahoma City.

The biggest change is in Oklahoma City’s three-point defense, which has cut down the amount of wide-open attempts against, defined as the closest defender six feet or more away. Last year, the Thunder ranked fourth for most wide-open three-point shot attempts against per game (16.2), which accounted for a league-high 21 percent of its opponent’s longrange attempts. This year, it is ninth in frequency (16 percent of shots against are from beyond the arc) and attempts (14.3 threepoint­ers per game), and that makes this team better defensivel­y than the one that challenged the Warriors last year.

Oklahoma City has the best defensive rating in the NBA with improved focus up and down the roster on that end. Even more impressive is that the team is doing this without its best defensive player, Roberson. If he can return back to form, he can raise the Thunder’s ceiling even higher.

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