How takeaways are fueling the Thunder’s remarkable rise

How takeaways are fueling the Thunder’s remarkable rise

OKC’s knack for takeaways has more than made up for its rebounding deficiencies; turnovers are not reboundable. And the Thunder’s penchant for steals has fueled its offense.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 23, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 23, 2024, 6:00am CST

NBA coaches have different personalities, so they say things in different ways. Like when talking about the Thunder’s propensity to create turnovers, and why a team that plays most of its minutes with four perimeter players can be such an effective defense.

Boston’s Joe Mazzulla is a minimalist: “They have active hands. They do a good job of meeting you at the rim. Tough, physical team.”

Mazzulla gets right to the point.

Portland’s Chauncey Billups is repetitive: “They jump in the passing lanes … they jump in the passing lanes … they try to just speed you up and jump in those passing lanes.”

Billups used 107 words, and three times recited “jump in the passing lanes.”

Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn is descriptive: “They’ve got guys that got great knack at the basketball. Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) has an unbelievable feel, like a cornerback in football. And (Luguentz) Dort is a linebacker who can blast through screens, who can come back and rebound. We get by, he’s able to reach from behind. So there’s a knack that those guys have of being in the right place and taking advantage of when you don’t secure the ball.”

The football analogies hit home in Oklahoma. 

To tell the story of this remarkable Thunder rise, we often focus on the offense. Gilgeous-Alexander’s historic efficiency. Jalen Williams’ explosion into an all-star candidate. Chet Holmgren’s amazing shooting and ballhandling for a 21-year-old rookie who is 85 inches tall.

But defense is half of every game. Half of every team. And it’s half of the Thunder’s success.

The Thunder indeed is ranked fourth in NBA offense (points per possession). OKC also is sixth in NBA defense. Only the Celtics (third, second) and 76ers (sixth, fourth) also are top-six in both offense and defense.

And the Thunder’s defense is built upon takeaways. Mark Daigneault doesn’t like to say that; maybe even won’t say that. He says the Thunder’s takeaways and the Thunder’s defensive prowess are built upon the same principles — positioning, fundamentals, etc.

But the Thunder’s knack for takeaways has more than made up for OKC’s rebounding deficiencies; turnovers are not reboundable. And the Thunder’s penchant for steals has fueled the Thunder offense.

The Thunder leads the NBA in points off turnovers (19.9 per game) and ranks first in takeaways (opponents’ turnovers, 15.9 per game) and second in steals (8.6).

Dort is one of the NBA’s best on-ball defenders. Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in steals (2.2 per game). And Holmgren is everything the Thunder hoped he would be as a shot-blocker when he was picked second overall in the 2022 draft.

“We have really good on-ball defenders,” SGA said. “Eighty-two-game season, you’re not going to turn everyone over as much as you’d like every night, but we’ve done a pretty good job.

“You have obviously Chet defensively … because he’s so good at the rim, he allows us to pressure the ball, funnel offensive players towards him, and for a big, he’s got great hands.”

So many things happen in a basketball game, sometimes it’s hard to even realize what is happening, much less remember them.

Spectacular shots. Last-minute drama. Controversial calls. Those are the things discussed in the seats and on social media the night of the game; the events rehashed in break rooms the next morning.

And all kinds of things helped the Thunder beat the Timberwolves 102-77 Saturday night, which drew OKC within a game of first-place Minnesota in the Western Conference.

The T-Wolves outscored the Thunder 16-2 in second-chance points. Minnesota giants Rudy Gobert (18 rebounds) and Karl-Anthony Towns (11) combined for 29 individual rebounds; the Thunder in total had 37. Such rebounding discrepancy can cause frustration.

But here’s a sequence that shows the positives of playing a smallish lineup and which, as much as anything, allowed the Thunder to beat Minnesota and fashion a glittering 29-13 record.

And you probably remember little of it:

* Less than seven minutes left in the game, Minnesota up 88-79. Timberwolf star Anthony Edwards drives against Dort and didn’t get past Dort, but he might have had an angle to the basket. Except Holmgren showed up at the rim and Edwards thought better of trying to sky over the 7-footer.

Edwards turned and flipped the ball in the general direction of Gobert but in reality nobody. The ball rolled out of bounds. SGA hit a jumper on the Thunder’s ensuing possession to make it 88-81.

* With 5:10 left, Edwards again drives on Dort, again gets a little past him but not much of an angle, and again Holmgren appears. So Edwards again forgoes a shot, but as he’s trying to dribble out of the lane, Dort knocks the ball free, off Edwards’ leg, and the Thunder’s Isaiah Joe picks it up.

* With 3½ minutes left, and Minnesota’s lead at 90-88, Edwards pump-fakes a 3-pointer as Dort charges out, but Edwards is a little hesitant to drive past Dort, so when Edwards does go, Dort is with him. SGA slides over and jumps as Edwards jumps, and Chet is waiting next to SGA, so Edwards calculates that a shot is not a good idea. So he adjusts, flips a pass toward the corner for Mike Conley, who had been guarded by SGA. Santa Clara Williams has been guarding Towns, but as Towns moves from the corner to the wing, making way for Conley, Williams doesn’t go all the way with him. He in effect tried to — and did — guard two players at once. Williams tipped Edwards’ pass, grabbed it out of the air and fed Gilgeous-Alexander.

SGA hit a 10-foot turnaround at 3:20. Tie score. Anybody’s game. Anybody proved to be the Thunder.

Edwards is an all-star. But in three minutes, he committed three turnovers, and the Thunder got right back in the game.

When asked about the Thunder’s takeaway talents, Holmgren at first wanted no credit.

“I don’t steal,” he said. “I just block shots.”

But upon further review, he admitted that makes a big difference.

“When guards know that I’m going to be there, they don’t just get a free run at the rim,” Holmgren said. “So they kind of slow down. That’s giving whoever’s behind a chance to catch up and deflect either the dribble or the pass after that. Just kind of presentation, I guess. Make the offense have to think and make the second play.”

Holmgren said those words 2½ weeks before the game in Minnesota. And yet they played out very much like he described.

Dogged defense by Dort. Quick hands by SGA. Rim protection by Holmgren. They are adding up to big takeaway numbers.

Yes, the Thunder will keep getting smashed on the boards. The Thunder will remain one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams; OKC currently ranks 28th out of 30 teams in offensive rebounding percentage and 29th in defensive rebounding percentage.

But the Thunder is making up for it in other ways. OKC is among the NBA’s best teams at taking care of the ball and taking it away from opponents.

Play defense like that, and you can live with the rebounding.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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