Is it just me, or does the Thunder have a habit of coasting through the first half or even the first three quarters and then play with purpose in the latter stages of the game?
Numbers-based evidence is inconclusive. Perhaps the best indicator would be how many of Oklahoma City’s 24 wins featured comebacks from a halftime deficit, and the answer is eight. Exactly a third. That doesn’t strike me as a particularly high or low percentage, though two of those comebacks have come in the last four Thunder wins, and six have come in the last 14.
A look at the halftime numbers in Oklahoma City’s 13 losses is similarly inconclusive. The Thunder has been trailing at the break in eight of them and was tied twice. OKC narrowed the gap between halftime and the final horn in only three of the 13 L’s.
But … it certainly feels like the Thunder plays completely differently in the second half, doesn’t it? Especially in recent weeks. That almost half of the last 14 wins were come-from-behind affairs probably helps.
The last two Thunder-Mavericks contests are good examples of why it feels like Oklahoma City has a Jekyll-Hide routine early and late. In both games, the Thunder spotted the Mavs a double-digit lead before half of the rich “too cool to get to the game on time” crowd found its seats. (This happened in the Memphis and San Antonio games too, to cite other recent examples.) Then the Thunder clawed back to take a lead.
But that also shows why, if the Thunder really is playing with an on/off switch, that doing so is living dangerously. In the first of those two games, a home loss, Oklahoma City couldn’t hang on. Jason Terry killed the Thunder down the stretch. On Thursday night, it worked fine. OKC locked down on the defensive end, moved ahead in the third quarter and never relinquished the lead. But, like with the first Mavs game, that doesn’t always happen. I doubt anyone would argue it’s a good idea to spot someone a big early lead.
So what kinds of ills could the Thunder be suffering from that would lead them to play like this?
OKC doesn’t come ready to play. I don’t necessarily believe this, although recent first quarters would certainly provide evidence for those who do. But maybe the Thunder just doesn’t focus from the opening tip.
The Thunder can’t find the right mix in the starting lineup. This is obviously a popular sentiment among the Daily Thunder community — although to be more specific, some people think the Thunder HAS found the right mix (starting Serge Ibaka for Jeff Green or Nenad Krstic), but it doesn’t use it. This I’m also not necessarily buying, and the main reason is that Ibaka still fouls too much. Trying to play him minutes befitting a starter won’t necessarily lead to him being able to play more minutes. Fouling out in 24 minutes on Thursday is a good example. And I know that some unit +/- statistics show that Ibaka is part of Oklahoma City’s most effective lineups, but it should be noted that he and the units he plays with play significant minutes against backups. That could be a sign of a very good bench more than a sign of Ibaka deserving a starting role (right now). And while the Thunder wins at a better clip in a slightly small sample size with Ibaka in the starting lineup, OKC also is batting 1.000 (2-0, a very small sample size) without Kevin Durant, and I don’t think anyone’s clamoring to put KD on the bench.
It’s doldrums time. This is what I think is the main cause of what seems to be the recent slow starts. The Thunder, still the third-youngest team in the league, has gotten to the point of the season when a team is no longer starting every game with the lessons from training camp in the forefront of its mind, but is also far enough away from the start of the playoffs that it’s hard to play with that “every game matters” mentality. Being young could be part of that mentality. The Lakers represent the opposite side of the spectrum that results in the same style of play — they’re so good, have won back-to-back titles, that they just can’t care at all about winter games. Maybe Oklahoma City is a couple of years away from its NBA sweet spot, when its an older and more experienced squad, knows its a contender and focuses almost every night but has not yet gotten bored with winning.
OKC’s defensive issues are effort- and focus-based. I think this has more to do with the Thunder’s defensive struggles than the departure of former assistant coach Ron Adams to Chicago over the offseason. I just refuse to believe that the Thunder, with the same rotation as it had a year ago, lost that many defensive lessons figuratively overnight. It’s just not possible. True, Adams’ ability to gameplan defensively when scouting upcoming opponents surely has at least a little something to do with it. But I still hold out a little hope that OKC is more or less just messing around at this point and will eventually settle down on that end of the floor. The Spurs, currently dominating the West, are doing so with similar defensive slides as the Thunder has suffered. Maybe the biggest difference is just that, with a veteran team, they’re better able to paper over the defensive deficiencies with sharp offensive execution. I like San Antonio’s chances to play a more playoff-winning defensive style come April and May. So there’s reason to believe OKC can revert to a defensive style later in the season.
The bottom line, as I’ll keep saying until I wear out my keyboard, is that Oklahoma City is far ahead of last season’s pace at the same point in time, and 2009-10 ended on as high of a note as any season can when you lose in the first round. The Thunder overachieved so much last season — and had room to overachieve so much — that anything less than a Spurs-like start would have, and did, feel just a little bit disappointing. OKC was never going to improve by 27 wins like it did last year.
So if Oklahoma City really does have a switch to flip, maybe it’s going to get flipped as soon as winter turns to spring, or even before. And I doubt any of the aging Western contenders would view it as good news if the Thunder’s youngsters have another level that they only occasionally unleash, especially if they can keep the switch flipped to “on” throughout the stretch run and playoffs.