Pegged by many to challenge the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs as the primary challengers to the Golden State Warriors’ Western Conference supremacy, the Oklahoma City Thunder have stalled. They’ve lost three in a row to drop to 4-6 on the season, failing to crack 100 points in any of the three defeats. They’ve spent the last two days licking their wounds in the Northwest Division basement after mustering only 86 points in a dispiriting loss to a young, well-meaning and very, very bad Sacramento Kings team.
After limiting to Sacramento to just 10 points in the first quarter, taking a 15-point lead after 12 minutes, the Thunder flat-out crumbled. An Oklahoma City side featuring the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player and a pair of All-Star scoring forwards coughed up back-to-back 16-point stanzas in the middle of the game, allowing the Kings to climb back into the game and hand Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and company a bracing defeat. The Thunder now rank 22nd among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, despite playing six games against teams — the Bucks, the Cavs, the Knicks, the Wolves (twice), the Pacers — that sit in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency.
So, naturally, Westbrook — a famously prickly sort who just ate a $15,000 fine for proclaiming Anthony’s ejection against the Portland Trail Blazers “a bunch of bulls***” and saying the NBA’s referees aren’t giving Oklahoma City a fair whistle — is ready to explode, right? Well, not exactly, according to Royce Young of ESPN.com:
“I’m not worried,” Westbrook told reporters, “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you close, as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”
Yeah, but George and Anthony — two guys eager to get back into contention after frustrating early postseason ends during their tenures in Indiana and New York — must be kind of freaking out about things being tougher than expected in their new digs, right? From Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:
“This is all new to everybody, new situations for everybody,” said Anthony, who along with George joined the team this summer. “Even though we losing games, I think it’s more of lessons being learned than actually losing the game. So right now, we’re learning a lesson in these last couple games.” […]
“We have a whole year to figure it out,” George said. “We can’t really try to rush this. It’s something that’s step-by-step, day-by-day [and], at this point, game-by-game. We’ve got to slowly get on the same page.”
Nowhere is the fact that Oklahoma City’s working off different scripts clearer than late in close games. The Thunder have opened the season 0-5 in games that have been within two points with four or fewer minutes to go, according to Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript, and have been outscored in crunch time by a staggering 42 points in 21 minutes of “clutch” play — 25 points more than the closest team, the Atlanta Hawks, who have played in one extra game featuring such situations.
Everything feels like a grind for the Thunder, even with all their offensive talent, and as a result, things are grinding to a halt. No team averages fewer passes per game than OKC. No team produces more isolation possessions per game, either. An offense featuring three formidable talents plus always-solid (and still productive) complementary center Steven Adams has largely looked less like a cohesive unit with flow and pace, and more like a collection of disparate parts trying to find their own opportunities to fly solo. From Brett Dawson of The Oklahoman:
“We put pressure on individuals,” George said after the Kings game. “When we get stagnant, we put pressure on individuals, and we’re too good of a team one through 14 – especially with that starting five – we’re too good of a team to allow ourselves to put pressure on one another.” […]
“I think the balance is, we need to keep all three of them engaged because they’re that gifted and that talented,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “But at the same point, we can’t go your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. That’s not gonna be good. But there is a balance.”
It’s a balance Oklahoma City has thus far been unable to strike, despite the stars individually sharing shots and responsibility, and everybody being healthy and generally in form. It was always going to take time for the Thunder to gel — especially after the anticipated plan of adding George and former Toronto Raptors stretch four Patrick Patterson to their existing core group got blown up by the opportunity to add Anthony — and for Donovan to figure out how best to integrate a pair of high-volume shot-creators and -takers alongside Westbrook, who filled that role all by his lonesome last season.
Getting “Olympic Melo” as a starting power forward sounded great in theory, but Anthony has long bristled at playing the four full-time in the NBA, and he hasn’t had to cede the lion’s share of shots and possessions to teammates as (or more) talented than he is at the NBA level. To his credit, he’s looked ready for the challenge of defending power forwards full time, and he seems to be trying to pass more. But he’s also still, y’know, Melo, who isn’t the easiest piece for other players to learn how to play alongside.
George, as the most versatile and malleable star in the Thunder’s constellation, has responded by taking a slight step back and trying to figure out how best to find his niche while amplifying everyone else’s gifts. That’s admirable, but it’s also awkward, and right now, the seams are showing.
“I don’t think it’s a lacking of wanting to move the ball,” Donovan said, according to Katz. “I think there’s a lot of stagnation where there may be a situation where there’s a good matchup for a guy on our team and they’re trying to give him some space, and there’s other times where we’re kind of standing and watching. We don’t need to do that.”
In fact, they need to do the opposite: more moving, more cutting, more passing and more actions with intent. Sure, the Thunder will probably be fine, but it’d be awfully nice to see them start acting like it — especially with a couple of games coming up against teams with whom they could be vying for postseason positioning, including Thursday’s meeting with world-breaker Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
Nobody’s asking for worry and panic. It’d be cool, though, to see the Thunder respond to early-season adversity with a sneer and some imperiousness, a sign that they know how good they can be and that they’ll be damned if they’re going to let a few rough showings get in the way.
Raymond Felton on tonight's game: "We’ve got to play with some attitude tonight. We’ve got to play angry."
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 9, 2017
It’s just a bummer that Westbrook’s so copacetic about everything. Right?
Russ didn't seem to be feeling media today, so I asked what he did on his off day: "Mind my business, stay out of yours."
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 9, 2017
… Oh, it’s on.
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