Can defense propel Thunder into NBA Finals?

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – On Wednesday afternoon the NBA released its list of players who made the All-NBA Defensive teams. The first team was comprised of Kawhi Leonard, Avery Bradley, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul.

Absent from the first and second team was any member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. In fact, no one from the team is mentioned until Russell Westbrook’s name pops up under other players receiving votes.

Since the All-defensive team is a regular season award, that makes sense. The Thunder ranked 15th in the league in points allowed. Those are not the numbers that earn defensive recognition.

However, as Oklahoma City heads into Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, defense has finally become their calling card.

“We’ve just got to cover for each other,” Kevin Durant said. “We’ve got to play extremely hard. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to give up shots and we’re going to give up layups and threes sometimes, but we’ve got to continue to keep playing through it all.”

With a 3-1 series lead, the Thunder are one win away from knocking out the Golden State Warriors. And defense has been as vital of a factor as anything else Oklahoma City has done. They are allowing 99 points with an 8.0 point differential. That is second only to Cleveland, but Oklahoma City played a much tougher schedule.

Durant has been one of the ring leaders on the defense front. When the Thunder go to its long and tall lineup, he is moved to the power forward spot, which gives him opportunities to protect the rim.

This was not a skill Durant used earlier in his career. But now he has 13 blocked shots in the postseason and has people wondering if he will add the finger wag to his celebration.

“Not as much as Serge has had, but just trying to help my teammates, be there for my teammates, and just contest shots,” Durant said. “If I block them, cool, if I just alter them, that’s cool as well. I’m not going to make any celebrations. I’m just going to do what I do and run back down the court.”

In order for the Thunder to close out this series in Oakland Thursday night, their defense will have to be at its best. With their postseason lives on the line, the defending champion Warriors aren’t going to lie down and just away give what they have fought for the past two seasons.

“They’ve had a lot of frustration over the years,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said about the Thunder. “They’re healthy. They’re whole. They are determined, and they want what we have. We have a banner hanging up in here and we take great pride in that. It’s a hard thing to accomplish, and they’ve been close, but they haven’t done it, and they’re coming after us. They’re really getting after it and playing well and competing. We’ve got to stand up to that. We’ve got to match-up to that intensity.”

Even with a seemingly commanding 3-1 advantage, the tides of fortune can turn in a matter of minutes. Freak injures or the Warriors all of a sudden getting hot at the right moment can derail Oklahoma City’s run to the NBA finals.

The Thunder have the Warriors down, but Durant wants his squad to have a different mindset for Game 5, which tips off at 8 p.m. on TNT.

“Every game you have a sense of urgency, it’s the playoffs and you know what everybody’s playing for,” Durant said. “We’ve just got to come out there and be who we are. We can’t put too much pressure on ourselves we have to go out, play the game, and play with passion and energy. And we know the whole crowd’s going to be against us and we have to stick together even more. Like I said, we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”

Michael Kinney is a freelance writer and can be reached at Eyeamtruth@gmail.com

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