After the Thunder started 5-0, there was a lot of nodding going on. Kevin Durant was kicking off an MVP campaign with style, the defense looked solid behind a re-made Kendrick Perkins and Oklahoma City was taking care of business against good teams like Orlando, Dallas and Memphis.
All that preseason hype and buzz was looking like it might have been justified. Validated. The Thunder looked good.
But after back-to-back losses, something the Thunder had happen only five times all of last season, there are a few mild concerns. Stress the word “mild” there. Durant was asked after the loss to Portland if there’s a new sense of urgency because of a second straight loss and he said, “What, you think we’re panicking? It’s been seven games man.” And he’s completely right.
The question is though, what changed? What was different between the five wins and the two losses. Because not only did the Thunder lose, they didn’t really look a whole lot like themselves.
Let’s break it down just with the numbers. Two things really stand out to me:
1) Free throw shooting
2) 3-point shooting
There are a lot of other things like opposing shooting percentage but in the two losses, scoring in the second half seemed to be the biggest issue. In the five wins, OKC averaged 29 free throws a game and 23.6 makes. In the two losses, it was 23.5 attempts and 18 makes. That’s a little more than seven points a game.
In the five wins, OKC made an average of eight 3-pointers a game on 19.2 attempts. In the two losses, it was five 3s a game on 19.5 attempts. Same number of attempts, just fewer makes. Part of that might have to do with Daequan Cook missing the Dallas game and being a bit under the weather in the Portland game. But it also has something to do with KD who was 11-22 from deep in the first five and just 4-13 the last two. Durant took eight free throws a game in the first five games and just 5.5 the last two. Clear differences.
Other than that, there really aren’t glaring differences. Opposing field goal percentage has been pretty consistent as well as the Thunder’s shooting overall percentage. Rebounding has been average throughout. The Thunder have turned the ball over a lot in wins and losses. They’ve gotten to the rim in both wins and the losses (except for the Memphis game where they took just 10 shots at the rim).
It just comes back to how OKC can struggle to find points sometimes. Last season the Thunder started the season well despite playing kind of terrible offense. They survived at the free throw line. I wouldn’t say OKC “survived” at the line in the five wins by any stretch, but it’s kind of the fallback plan if the offense stinks. And the offense often stinks if KD isn’t do his normal amazing thing where he makes incredible shots or Russell Westbrook isn’t taking over a game.
You’d like to be one of those teams that can just rely on your defense to win games in those situations, but that’s not how the Thunder have been. The Thunder are an average defensive team, but one with potential to be a really good one.
I do think fatigue played a little factor in the last two games though. The Thunder were the fastest team to play seven games this year and had to play seven games in 10 days. They had to deal with a controversy, had to deal with their second best player not playing all that well and had to deal with two pretty darn good teams on back-to-back nights.
In reality, the Thunder probably didn’t deserve to be 5-0, but just got bailed out a couple times because they’ve got one of the three best players in basketball. Sometimes that’s all it takes though.
But like Durant said, no reason to panic. Just reason to get better.