Did you know: On March 10 of last season, the Thunder picked up their 47th win, with just 16 losses. Yet, with a month to go, they were still one game back of the Spurs, and about to fall behind two games with a loss in San Antonio on March 11.
This season, despite going 3-5 since the All-Star break, they sit at 46-17, and just a half game back of the Spurs, but with the tiebreaker already in hand.
The 2012-13 Thunder finished out from there 13-5, locking up the No. 1 seed in the West along with 60 wins. Something very within the realm of possibility, maybe even probability, for this year’s team. Except, there’s obviously a different feel, mainly because of the gross slump the Thunder have found themselves in since the break. The 3-5 record is the worst part, but it’s mostly about the porous defense and sloppy play that has some worried. For good reason. The defense is giving up 108.3 points per 100 possessions, and the Thunder have dropped games to terrible teams, like the Cavs and Lakers.
Everyone is asking: What’s the big problem. The buzzword is defense, and if you’re hunting an easy excuse, start with two starters being absent. They definitely miss Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, mainly because the rotation has been thrown for a loop without them. And with Thabo, it’s probably not coincidental that with the Thunder’s best perimeter stopper gone, Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks dropped career-highs in back-to-back games.
But, at the same time, the Thunder were able to win a bunch of games without Russell Westbrook. You’re telling me they can’t do the same without Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins? So that excuse kind of stinks when you think about it.
Still: This isn’t a reason to panic, at least not entirely. The Thunder have proven that it’s not entirely necessary to have the top seed in the West to be successful in the postseason, and while it’d leave a sour taste to essentially have given it away, this team is more talented than any other in the West.
Don’t let an eight-game slump cloud what’s been some really good times for this team. Whether they’ve relaxed, lost focus, are coasting or whatever, the most important thing is, they’re just playing poorly. They’re better than this. They aren’t getting beat; they’re beating themselves. And that can be fixed.
1. Kevin Durant (last week: 2)
Was KD gunning for numbers yesterday? I don’t think I’d necessarily characterize it as that. What I think happened is he saw the Thunder were up 18, and playing an opponent that was clearly inferior. So he saw the writing on the wall that he might only be playing another three-quarter game, so with his time left on the floor, he started trying to pad the stats a bit, hunting for a triple-double. Kind of like in a pickup game, if your team is up 17-6 going to 20, so every time down your team starts jacking hero shot 3s. You lose focus, you lose discipline, and before you know it, it’s 17-14 and you’ve got a game on your hands again.
There is zero doubt in my mind that Durant’s top focus every night is winning the game. But within the game, there’s always another game and that’s how you individually play. You can sit here and say that a player shouldn’t care about numbers, but if you’re so callous to truly believe that, then why are you even watching? What fun is that?
This is certainly weird, though: Since the All-Star break, Durant is shooting just 80.2 percent from the free throw line. He missed four more free throws yesterday, giving him 17 misses from the stripe in these eight games. Total on the season before the break, he’d missed 62 in 54 games. Fatigue of the season? Too much going on in his head during the quiet moments at the free throw line?
2. Russell Westbrook (last week: 1)
So, it’s the elephant in the room: Is this Westbrook’s fault? We can all agree the biggest issue for the Thunder currently is on the defensive end. So remembering that, here are the numbers:
The Thunder with Westbrook from Nov. 1 – Dec. 25: Scored 106.9 points per 100, allowed 98.0. However, the on/off floor numbers are a bit more telling. With Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder scored 107.6 and allowed 100.7. With him off, scored 105.6 and allowed 93.0. So the defense was a lot better during that 21-4 stretch with Westbrook on the bench.
In this eight-game debacle, with Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder are scoring 119.8 per 100, but allowing 112.3. With him off, scoring 97.8 and allowing 103.2.
I wondered if maybe Westbrook’s gambling defensive nature has been exposed more by not playing with two defensive-minded players like Perk and Thabo. But nope. With Perk on the floor with him, the Thunder allow 102.1 points per 100. With Thabo, it’s 103.9. In fact, Westbrook is way better without those guys, posting an offensive rating of 119.4 with Thabo on the bench, and a 116.4 with Perk on the bench.
This is far from Westbrook’s fault. He’s played really well since coming back, re-integrating better and faster than I think any of us could’ve anticipated. The problem for the Thunder right now falls in their team defensive scheme, which is to seal the paint and do their best to contest perimeter jumpers. Except they aren’t contesting all that well.
Where I think Westbrook ties in to the struggles though, is that with him back, the team is far more offensive-minded. They’re explosive, they’re fast, they’re loose. And they’re potentially taking the other end for granted because of their assumption of having superior offensive power. Without Westbrook, the team paid attention to all the details, defending at a high level, taking care of the ball and relying on role players everywhere. With Westbrook, they’re back to being fun and fast, but forgetting all the little things.
3. Serge Ibaka (last week: 3)
You may not have noticed, but Serge Ibaka has maintained his pretty stellar play even with Westbrook returning and taking over a bulk of the offense. Without Westbrook between Christmas and the All-Star break, Ibaka averaged 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 56.7 percent from the field, with a usage rate was at 18.4 percent. In the eight games with Westbrook back, Ibaka’s at 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds on 57.7 percent shooting with a usage rate of 17.9.
4. Reggie Jackson (last week: 4)
Jackson is quietly getting back to what’s made him good. He’s taking fewer bad shots, and looking to attack the basket more consistently. As a starter, 70.3 percent of Jackson’s buckets were unassisted. Since Westbrook’s returned, 60 percent are unassisted. Jackson is playing a little less one-on-one, and doing more as an attacking wing force.
Jackson has become a bit of a lightning rod for criticism himself because of his annoying habit of looking off open teammates and trying to do too much. But there’s a simple fact to remember here: The Thunder need Reggie Jackson to win a championship. And they need him playing well.
5. Derek Fisher (last week: 5)
Still making shots. D-Fish scoffs at your regression to the mean. It only emboldens him more to take horribly contested 3-pointers. To which he will swish.
6. Caron Butler (last week: N/A)
So… how has he done so far? At one point during the Phoenix game, I was raving to my brother about what a fit he was and how he was going to prove to be a title swinging acquisition.
I may have been getting ahead of myself.
Butler then finished that game 0-5, and then went 2-6 against the Lakers and was a -15 in 24 minutes. He’s only played in three games, and I think his inclusion in a few lineups has been awkward. Scott Brooks seems to be forcing him on to the floor in some situations, rather than playing him naturally. It’s like they promised Butler he’d play at least 20 minutes so he’d sign with OKC.
I think Butler is going to be a key addition, but he needs more time with the B-team units, and a little less with Westbrook and Durant.
7. Perry Jones III (last week: 8)
I continue to be excited about Jones as a starting 2-guard, even if Sunday’s game didn’t go all that well. On the season, he’s 12-31 on corner 3s, and 18-46 overall from deep, which is pretty decent. I don’t know if he can chase smaller guards around screens, but he has something to add.
8. Jeremy Lamb (last week: 9)
Now eight games and counting he’s scored in single-digits.
This is becoming a real worry.
9. Nick Collison (last week: 6)
Since the All-Star break, Collison is averaging just 14.0 minutes a game (he’s at 17.0 a game on the season) and in the last five games, he hasn’t played more than 15.
In the last eight games, with Collison off the floor the Thunder are allowing 112.7 points per 100 possessions (274 minutes). With him on, 97.4 (110 minutes). With OKC’s defense slipping, it would make sense to play one of you most consistently sound defensive players more, yes?
10. Steven Adams (last week: 7)
The last few games, we haven’t really had the chance to see what Adams is capable of as a starter. Teams continue to play OKC small, and it’s limited Adams time on the floor.
But Tuesday, he gets Dwight Howard.
So we’ll see how that goes.
11. Hasheem Thabeet (last week: 10)
It’s funny to me how when expectations are so low, even the slightest positive play can get people excited. After watching Hasheem Thabeet do things like adequately run up and down the basketball court without falling while being tall, some we wondering if he was a better backup center than Steven Adams, or if maybe he should even be the starter.
Thabeet’s recent play has been solid, if only because it has been decent. He’s done his job to a degree, and given the Thunder minutes with a tall guy on the floor.
Though I will point this out: The best net rating on the team since the All-Star break is Thabeet, at +14.5 points per 100 possessions (58 minutes).
12. Andre Roberson (last week: 12)
Does it say more about him, or Jones, that Brooks has elected not to start Roberson with Thabo out? I think that’s more about the good things Jones has done lately, but Roberson was Thabo Jr. at times earlier in the season, but now he’s back to the end of the bench.
Inactives: Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Williams