“If pleasures are greatest in anticipation, just remember that this is also true of trouble.” – Elbert Hubbard
I just didn’t feel like they were going to be able to dodge yet another bullet last night. Call it pessimism or lowering my expectations so as to not be disappointed, but even with the ball in Durant’s hands for a last second shot and the ensuing overtime after the miss, I just never had that gut feeling that the Thunder would pull it out–like I did against the Jazz, Wizards, etc over the course of the winning streak.
But I was frustrated and despondent none the less (though not nearly as bad as I was after being forced to endure the debacle that was the Cotton Bowl).
And that disappointment is the problem with unexpected success and climbing new heights: We raise our expectations and start looking ahead at the calendar to check off future Wins and Losses with a new, adjusted sense of how good this team is and should be moving forward.
But like the game of basketball itself, a team and a season is all about spurts. Every team makes a run, both good and bad. And so the best time to step back and take assessment of the state of all things Thunder is precisely at this moment. The warts are easiest to hide under the salve of winning. After all, winning cures all ails.
But in a loss, and might I add a loss that perfectly highlights the glaring weaknesses of your team, the picture becomes explicitly clear as to what is working, what has improved and what desperately needs more attention. So what did we learn from the Bucks’ game? From the season as a whole thus far? Well, we learned something we’ve already known but just maybe reduced in terms of panic and importance since this Thunder team is performing well beyond the preseason expectations we (or anyone in the NBA, for that matter) could have predicted. But again, all it takes is that one loss to make fans everywhere hit the panic button when that GLARING HOLE in the armor becomes visible again.
But is there justification in pushing the panic button after yet another painful demonstration of what this team is lacking? Well now, that’s the question.
Offensive rebounds. They’re absolutely killing the Thunder.
After last night the Thunder are sitting at sixth worst in allowing Opponents to pull down Offensive Rebounds at 11.9 a game. Why is this so bad? Well, to put it bluntly, when you allow offensive rebounds you give up extra possessions to your opposition. And for the Thunder, who is an especially inefficient offensive team, giving the other team more opportunities at the basket is like successfully walking through a room of mouse traps only to realize that you forgot your keys and have to go back. Sooner or later, it’s going to hurt you.
To further establish the importance of offensive rebounding and extra possessions, let’s take a look at last night’s game again in terms of the four factors of winning. Like Joe pointed out rather poignantly, the Thunder were victorious in three of the four factors but were absolutely annihilated in the factor of offensive rebounds. And when one of the four factors is so clearly DOMINATED by one team (like the Bucks did in Offensive Rebounds), than it almost makes it impossible for the other team to pull out a victory, even by winning the other three factors.
Of course this is true of the other three factors of winning as well. When one team has a dramatic dominance in any of the four factors, be it free throw shooting, FG% or Turnovers (limiting them, of course), then the weight of that dominance outweighs the slight advantages of the other categories…well, categorically.
And that’s the problem, the Thunder can’t afford to be consistently dominated in offensive rebounding if they want to make a run for the playoffs because they really don’t have much room for error. The Lakers and Suns, both worse than the Thunder at giving up offensive rebounds (and no, I have absolutely no answer as to why the Lakers are so bad in this category other than maybe their bench), can get away with it better than the Thunder because they have a greater margin of error when it comes to the four factors.
But the Thunder are improving and giving themselves a wider margin than ever before. Obviously the free throw shooting improvement has helped (though they will have a game here and there where you feel sick to your stomach down the stretch) but even more so, the almost sudden stratospheric improvement of Russell Westbrook’s play at the point position recently and the acquisition of Eric Maynor has been a revelation at the position. I don’t know whether to credit the presence of Eric Maynor or the maturation of Westbrook himself or the coaching staff for Westbrook’s sudden improvement, but FG% aside, RW has been playing like the player we’ve all hoped and believed he could be…and Maynor, wow, he has really shown his value and the value of a legit backup point guard in general.
Coming into this season, the Thunder’s greatest needs were point guard play, perimeter shooting/scoring and post presence. So far, the point guard play has and is improving, the perimeter shooting has struggled but the scoring from the wing positions has been improving (obviously Durant is having a phenomenal, All-Star caliber third season) and the continued contributions of Harden and Thabo at the shooting guard position are rounding this team into a playoff contender.
So that just leaves that little old problem that we’ve all been screaming, debating and going a little crazy over: The Post.
I have no desire to repeat what many, many, surely thousands of comments and posts have said before so I’ll just say this… Ibaka is not ready but wow, what a great discovery his contributions have been. Collison is the glue guy that every team needs OFF THE BENCH, which is the dilemma (he’s best coming off the bench) and the overall reason I think the Thunder are struggling so badly in the post when it comes to offensive rebounds and post defense in terms of one-on-one matchups.
Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic can not play together in the paint.
They are both, clearly, perimeter oriented post players and even though this is an obvious, “no duh” statement to make, the problem with two perimeter post players is that A) They are typically undersized at their positions, so who on the team then has the body and the mindset to protect the rim and stop a wide-bodied offensive threat so that helpside defenders don’t have to leave their man to help, thereby giving up rebounding position to the other players? and B) If one or both of them are setting a screen or looking to shoot a long two or three…who is down low to earn the higher percentage shots and control the flow of the game?
Like I said, much has been said and I expect much more to be said, but let’s not forget that warts are more visible in losses and overlooked in victories. But the inverse of that is also true, the sky isn’t falling after a loss so let’s not dismiss the positive steps that the team has made so far when a five game winning streak has come to an end and we’re all understandably disappointed because of it.
It just means that we must readjust our expectations accordingly…even if we could be really, really excited and maybe even have championship expectations in the near future if we could just solve that ever perplexing riddle down in the paint.