Defense wins championships.
It's an age-old aphorism with which the Oklahoma City Thunder are well-acquainted, if only because their inability to stop the Miami Heat in crucial moments during the 2012 NBA Finals, in large part, cost them last year's title.
It's also one that the young-gun Thunder appear to have taken to heart this season (just as they did in 2011-12) as they pursue a defense of their Western Conference crown...and then some. That much was evident during OKC's 95-94 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. In the second half, anyway.
Not that the Knicks had any luck slowing down the Thunder's top-ranked attack. OKC scored 59 points of its own on 55.9 percent shooting from the floor through the first 24 minutes.
OKC had no such luck putting the ball in the basket after the break, though. Russell Westbrook managed just two points on 1-of-9 shooting while hobbling around on a tweaked ankle, after blowing up for 19 points in the first half. The Thunder, as a whole, were outscored 25-16 in the third quarter, and, were it not for Kevin Durant, would've managed just 15 points on 6-of-23 from the field for the entire second half. Durant's 21 points, then, were vitally important to OKC's cause, as they so often are.
But it was Kevin's defense, in conjunction with that of his teammates, that made the biggest difference for the Thunder—as it will come playoff time. OKC limited New York to 13 points in the fourth quarter, with just four makes in 18 tries.
J.R. Smith, who torched the Thunder for 31 points through the first three quarters, managed a mere five points on 2-of-9 from the field in the final frame. Durant's length and athleticism proved bothersome to the gunning Smith, who had a chance to win the game at the buzzer but missed off the back of the iron.
And so, in a playoff-type game between two No. 2 seeds, the Thunder emerged victorious by playing prototypical postseason basketball. OKC didn't run the Knicks out of MSG (just two fast-break points in the second half), nor did they parade their way to the rim (10 points in the paint in the second half) against an incomplete version of the oldest team in NBA history.
Instead, the Thunder did what any self-respecting, legitimate title contender would: They ground it out—possession by possession, stop by stop. They hounded the Knicks with their long arms and young legs. They challenged shots at the rim and dared New York, a team with a penchant for perimeter shooting, to beat them on long-range looks.
The Knicks had three chances to pull off the 'Melo-less upset in the final minute-and-a-half, but came up empty each time. Westbrook made up for his off scoring night by picking Raymond Felton's pocket, before J.R. Smith's last two shots went wanting with the Knicks still down by one.
Defense, then, was clearly the difference for the Thunder, as it has been all season. OKC currently ranks sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing just 99.7 points per 100 possessions, and fourth in opponent effective field-goal percentage (.473), which factors in the added value of three-pointers.
But top-notch defense is nothing new for the Thunder, at least during the regular season. They ranked ninth and fourth, respectively, in defensive efficiency and opponent effective field-goal percentage in 2011-12.
Thus, a close win over a short-handed Knicks squad doesn't mean all that much for the Thunder, even with the stellar defense down the stretch. Frankly, no single regular-season result will mean anything for OKC if it doesn't wind up as but one of many yellow bricks in the road to the 2013 Larry O'Brien Trophy.
So far, the Thunder have shown they have the chops to come out of the West for the second time in as many seasons. OKC is 14-8 against the rest of the Western Conference playoff field and the Los Angeles Lakers so far this season, including a 4-1 mark combined against the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers.
How the Thunder would fare in the NBA Finals is another story entirely. They've played the Heat twice this season and have been beaten handily both times. OKC's top-10 efforts on both ends of the floor, particularly its defensive play, will be lost to the ether of basketball history if they aren't put to proper use against Miami.
But if the Thunder get after the opposition the way they did on Thursday night, if they put their youth and agility to proper use in that regard to as dominant an effect as they did in fending off the Knicks, then there's no telling what the Thunder can accomplish.
Because defense wins championships, and right now, the Thunder are playing plenty of it.