The Oklahoma City Thunder needed a jumpstart against the Spurs, so coach Scott Brooks went to the player he often turns to in times of need. And Thabo Sefolosha, as he often does, delivered.
That is correct. Sefolosha, the 28-year-old guard who has started every game he has played in the last four seasons, yet whom few casual fans would recognize if you gave them a signed photo, may be the Thunder’s ultimate defensive weapon. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the indispensible stars, Serge Ibaka blocks a ton of shots and Kendrick Perkins supplies grit and screen-setting, but Sefolosha provides the defensive edge that puts Oklahoma City over the top as the best team in the NBA.
Out of the Thunder’s super-role players, Ibaka has been the headliner all season for his improved offensive play, which he displayed against the Spurs on Monday. The Congolese power forward scored 25 points on an array of midrange jump shots and pick-and-roll finishes to help the Thunder defeat the Spurs. Yet Ibaka’s shot-blocking still eclipses his offense, and even then his all-around defensive game is still a work in progress. For now, Sefolosha is still the more solid defender at his position, although Ibaka is closing the gap and his shot-blocking remains invaluable.
Sefolosha carries OKC’s second-lowest defensive rating (behind Durant) at 99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. Being the best defender on the Thunder is no small feat, either. Durant’s length makes him a troublesome defender. Westbrook’s all-defense campaign is in full swing thanks to his coach’s crusading and a rising steals total. Perk is Perk, of course.
All together, the Thunder give up the 10th-fewest points per game even though they play at an average pace relative to the rest of the league. (By comparison, Chicago, Indiana and Memphis play three of the slowest styles in the NBA, so the fact that they allow the three fewest points-per-game totals is no surprise.) Couple that with the league’s most efficient offense, and it is understandable that OKC has the best point differential at plus-9.5 points per game.
At the heart of the defensive strength is the small yet vital effort of Sefolosha. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard from Switzerland, Sefolosha has never been in the top 10 in steals, blocks or any of the other statistical categories usually associated with defensive excellence. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team in 2009-10, when he also tied for the league high by playing all 82 games, but since then, inferior defenders like Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo have beat him out for all-defense spots.
Instead of awards or traditional measures, Sefolosha’s excellence is evident in how he is deployed. Brooks changed the course of last season’s Western Conference Finals when he sicced Sefolosha on Spurs point guard Tony Parker midway through the series, and Brooks did the same in the second half on Monday to help his team outscore the Spurs 29-16 in the third quarter.
Then again, it makes sense that Sefolosha, with his wiry frame and long limbs, would give fits to a little guy like Parker. What about a bigger, stronger player — one who many people consider to be the best scorer in the game? Again, Sefolosha holds up, even against Kobe Bryant. Although the Lakers guard has posted about the same per-minute numbers against the Thunder the last two years with or without Sefolosha on the court, he shoots markedly worse on close shots against Sefolosha than he does when he is guarded by someone else. Ibaka and Perkins’ presence on the court with Sefolosha may have a lot to do with that, but if so, that means funneling Bryant to those rim-protectors is part of the Thunder’s game plan. In that case, Sefolosha still deserves praise for sending Bryant to precisely where the Thunder want him to go — and forcing him to take the outside shots the Thunder are willing to give him.
Late in the third quarter, after Parker had missed three of his five shots and been held to just one assist in the second half, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich threw in the proverbial towel. With an eye toward Tuesday’s game in Denver, he yanked Parker and Tim Duncan and played the final 15 minutes without his two best players. (Manu Ginobili was out with a bruised thigh.) Popovich, shrewd as always, recognized that on this night, with a double-digit lead and Sefolosha on his game defensively, his team had no hope of coming back.
Ibaka ended up with 17 rebounds to go with his 25 points, making him the story of the game. Westbrook and Kevin Martin each topped 20 points, and Durant poured in a quiet 19. Sefolosha walked off with a performance that looked putrid on paper — two points on 1-for-8 shooting, three rebounds, one assist, two steals — but as is often the case, he was just as crucial to the Thunder’s statement win.
Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.