Thunder Needs Thabo Sefolosha’s Defense
For the most part, the Oklahoma City Thunder has experienced good fortune when it comes to injuries to its key players. Eric Maynor’s season-ending ACL injury, which occurred during the ninth game of the season, was this franchise’s first real taste of losing a rotation player for significant amount of time.
On the heels of Maynor, the Thunder experienced another injuy, this time to starter Thabo Sefolosha. The team’s premiere defensive stopper suffered a tendon injury to his right foot in late January and missed 23 games. He finally returned to the fold on March 15th.
We caught up with Sefolosha following the Thunder’s home loss to the San Antonio Spurs, 114-105, which was his second game back.
“I feel pretty good,” he told HOOPSWORLD. “I wasn’t sure how I was (going to) hold up, but I felt very good out there.”
For the time being, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is limiting his playing time to around 14 minutes per game.
“I understand it’s a process,” Sefolosha said. “He wants to integrate me back slowly and make sure that I’m ready to go at playoff time.”
“I don’t want to play him a lot of minutes right now,” Brooks shared. “He’s still coming back. It’s just what I want to do with Thabo.”
With the end of the regular season approaching – just 22 games left – the Thunder needs his defensive prowess. They are currently ranked 13th in Defensive Rating at 102.9 (estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) and 17th in Opponent Points per Game (96.7). With their defensive specialist back, the Thunder are eager to build upon their proven defense-first mentality.
“You play defense, you’re going to have the opportunity to win the game,” said Kevin Durant after the Thunder mounted a failed comeback in the Spurs game.
Sefolosha’s ability to guard an opponents’ best perimeter shooter is a weapon that cannot always be measured in absolute terms on the stat sheet, but it’s a critical element to successful teams.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Thunder has the leading shot-blocker in the league, Serge Ibaka, at 3.3 blocks per game.
Despite their winning record, 33-11, they seem to have lost a step lately. Though OKC still sits atop the Western Conference rankings (and second in the league behind the Chicago Bulls), they’ve lost three of the past five games.
In Sefolosha’s absence, Brooks inserted sharpshooter Daequan Cook in the starting lineup. After a promising beginning, Cook had taken a decided downturn in production. It’s good that he returned to his familiar role in the second unit.
“I think it’s great to have him back,” Cook told John Rohde of The Oklahoman. “The last few games, the defense hasn’t been there. When you have Thabo out there, it makes a big difference for us, knowing what he’s capable of doing and how it impacts our team.”
“When everybody’s back, DC comes in in his normal position off the bench and provides us instant three-point shooting and that unit plays very well,” said Brooks.
The Thunder had a record of 16-2 before Sefolosha’s injury and 16-8 without him. This season, their opponents have shot an effective field goal percentage of .411 when he’s on the floor; without him that number jumps to .473.
Brooks explains his reaction to Sefolosha’s first game back.
“I was actually expecting to see more rust, but he came out and played like he hasn’t missed a game,” began Brooks. “He’s missed seven weeks or so. He defends, he moves, he runs, he always seems to be in good position for us on the defensive end, he can guard multiple positions. He had a great game out.”
Brooks broke it down in his typical humor-laced manner.
“Hopefully, it’s not like you take the winter off in golf and in your first round in spring, you’re shooting a 77 and the next day you come back and shoot your normal 98.”
An unexpected recent decision in Sefolosha’s absence was Brooks’ decision to play guard Royal Ivey significant minutes. Ivey’s energy and commitment to defense has changed the tempo in a few games. With the return of Sefolosha, some wonder why Brooks went with Ivey over him down the stretch in the Spurs loss.
“Royal was doing a great job of guarding Tony (Parker),” Sefolosha told us. “He made some shots, so I think that was the right call to let him play it out.”
Continuity among the players regarding the concept of “team” is a hallmark of this team.
“That’s the thing that is impressive about our group of guys,” Brooks said. “We never make an excuse. Guys are out, guys are coming in, guys are playing more minutes, guys are playing less minutes. You do your job and my job is to figure out how to put this team in position to do their job. And our guys do that.
“Thabo seems like he didn’t miss many games,” continued Brooks. “He came in…DC filled his role fine…Royal came in and played well when he got minutes. That’s what our coaching staff believes in, working every day with our guys and having them in the position (that) when they get called upon they do well.”
Tough games have yet to be played, such as the Thunder’s sole matchup against the Miami HEAT and the Chicago Bulls. All defensive hands must be on deck.