Solving the mystery of the rolling Thunder

How great Thou art — no, the “Thou” is not a deity, if you believe in one, but the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The beloved old-time hymn, as many of you will recall, includes these lyrics:

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Oklahoma City is the home of the rolling Thunder, who are trampling the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The idea that OKC could beat Golden State was not preposterous at all, but the country whippings the Thunder are slapping on a 73-9 team have taken me by surprise, and certainly plenty of other national observers.

What’s going on here? What can be explained? How can one formulate a concise answer to the most basic and incredulous questions?

Let’s start by simply saying that for many — not all, but many (including yours truly) — the solutions the Thunder evidently needed were not entirely the solutions people thought they had to find.

This is not a new conversation with the Thunder. Over the past several years, a lack of structure in late-game offensive sets (if you could even call them sets) stood out as a visually arresting deficiency. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, easily two of the 10 best players in the world (and realistically, two of the best five or six), could not crack the code in tight scoreboard situations. Recall Game 6 against San Antonio in the 2014 Western Conference Finals. Think of Game 5 against the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2014 West semifinals, before Chris Paul gacked away that contest and the Thunder escaped with a win.

Scott Brooks did well with the Thunder’s defense; the offense was supposed to be the area of need.

As these 2016 West Finals return to Oakland with the Thunder just one win away from a second NBA Finals appearance, the metamorphosis occurring in Oklahoma does not fall in line with conventional wisdom.

The rolling Thunder are where they are because they’ve somehow managed to take their defense — and their energy — to new levels.

Keep this point in mind: Oklahoma City didn’t blast the Warriors out of the water on Tuesday night with lethal shooting. The Thunder finished 39 of 90 from the field, 43.3 percent.

It has always been felt that Durant and Westbrook needed to be “on” for the Thunder to reach their potential. The plot twist involved in that statement is that K.D. and Russ are most definitely playing at a high level… but on defense more than on offense. Both men are using their physical tools — Durant his length, Russ his quickness and energy — to wear out the Warriors. Oklahoma City is forcing Golden State to work so hard at the defensive end of the floor that the Warriors aren’t able to feel comfortable on offense.

When you then realize that the Thunder’s bench has become better than the Warriors’ bench — much as it became better than the San Antonio Spurs’ vaunted reserves in the previous round — Oklahoma City doesn’t have to overextend its starters.

The 41 minutes Durant played and the 40 Westbrook logged in Game 4 do not represent “light” workouts, but seven to eight minutes of rest equate to two minutes per quarter. With timeouts thrown into the mix, that’s a reasonable balance for Billy Donovan. The idea of playing Durant and Russ 48 minutes has been tossed around earlier in this series, but with Dion Waiters becoming an indispensable sixth man (32 high-quality minutes in Game 4), OKC doesn’t have to consider the notion.

 

As long as Westbrook gets a modest amount of rest, he can be this kind of player in second halves and fourth quarters:

The extent to which the Thunder are outworking, outmuscling, and generally outplaying the Warriors flows from the defensive end of the floor and the glass. Durant and Westbrook will make an outrageously amazing offensive play every now and then, but the Thunder’s ability to dictate the shape of the game with their defense — and then secure the vast majority of 50-50 balls when either team misses a shot — represents the foundation Billy Donovan has established.

Fourth-quarter offense? The Thunder haven’t needed it… not when they’ve held the Warriors to a 14-point fourth quarter in Game 1, and a 12-point fourth quarter in Game 4.

Fourth-quarter blown leads? Oklahoma City is so far ahead in fourth quarters that it doesn’t have to worry about falling apart. Moreover, the Thunder’s habit of losing focus during the regular season has been obliterated.

This point about the Thunder’s roster tweaks is well made:

However, the right roster doesn’t become the right roster if the coach doesn’t unlock its talents.

The conventional wisdom said that the Oklahoma City Thunder needed to become a more polished offensive team in fourth quarters. The rolling Thunder have become such a juggernaut by improving upon the defense-first foundation Scott Brooks put down in OKC. Billy Donovan — by getting through to Durant and Westbrook at the defensive end of the floor, and then turning the light on for Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson — has improved the Thunder not by polishing rough edges, but by enhancing this team’s ability to play relentlessly rough defense.

It’s not what many of us expected. It’s not something we saw during the regular season. It’s not what we could have realistically predicted after Game 1 of the Spurs series.

Yet, it has happened.

The team which took so many plays off, the team whose playoff lulls became such a source of irritation under Scott Brooks, doesn’t wander off the reservation anymore.

We’ve long wondered what it would look like if K.D. and Russ never took their feet off the gas.

This is what it looks like… with defense, not offense, calling the shots.

That’s Billy Donovan’s contribution to the rolling Thunder. The superstars are indeed leading the way, just as we all said they needed to… but not in the form we anticipated.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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