The Thunder last week: lost to the Cavs, beat the Grizzlies and Bobcats.
In a vacuum, that’s not horrible, but it sure doesn’t feel great, especially considering they’re 2-3 since the All-Star break.
The problem has been obvious: shoddy defense. The offense was the big concern with Russell Westbrook coming back, because adding in a high usage player like that could offset the chemistry they’ve had building without him. But the offense has mostly been fine. In the five games since Westbrook return, OKC’s scoring 108.5 points per 100 possessions (above their season average), but they’re allowing 110.6, which would be the worst in the entire NBA.
What’s the deal with it? Is it that Westbrook has destroyed their defensive chemistry? Maybe the Thunder relaxed a little since he returned and hasn’t focused in quite as much? Or maybe the most likely explanation: They’ve run into a hot streak from their opponents.
John Schuhmann kind of blew the lid off the Thunder’s top tier defense recently, illustrating via SportVU stats that OKC allows more uncontested jumpers than any team in the entire league. But somehow, they’ve had the good fortune to still remain fourth in the league allowing 43.5 percent shooting and 34.6 percent on 3s (sixth). Stunning.
The big reason for OKC’s success is that they do a good job protecting the paint — 39.7 points allowed in the paint, sixth overall, and fifth in opponent field goal percentage at the rim — and force teams to take a lot of long 2-pointers. Granted, it appears a lot of those long 2s are open, but it’s still a lower percentage shot. The problem with that is, you’re playing with fire. Because NBA players will make you pay. In the five games the defense has been poor, the Thunder have allowed 178 contested shots, and 212 uncontested. Opponents shot 48.3 on the contested shots and 50.9 percent on the uncontested. Little bad luck in there mixed with giving up too many open looks.
(Now, something to mention on this contested versus uncontested: An uncontested shot is defined as a defender not being within four feet. And sometimes, you OK with certain players attempting open shots. And the SportVU thing Schuhmann wrote was specifically about jumpshots, something that’s not available to the public quite yet.)
The Thunder have proven themselves to be an elite defensive team the last four seasons, so really, this stretch of poor defense seems to just be a blip in the 82-game radar.
1. Russell Westbrook (last week: 2)
Since he’s returned: 19.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 47.7/52.6/86.7 shooting splits. The last three games though: 23.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 61/61/93 shooting splits.
OK, so obviously those last three games aren’t sustainable, but it’s clear that it hasn’t taken Westbrook long to settle back into form and start playing brilliant basketball again. His re-addition has made things often uncomfortable for Durant, but the two rediscovered a lot of their chemistry against the Grizzlies, with KD going for 37 as Westbrook set him up beautifully in crunchtime.
Good to not just have Westbrook back, but to already have him back.
2. Kevin Durant (last week: 1)
Durant’s February: 33.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists with a true shooting of 60.5 percent. Per Elias, Durant is on the second player in NBA history to put up those kinds of numbers in a full month since Oscar Robertson.
(Oh, and LeBron’s February, where he was supposedly closing the gap on KD: 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists with a true shooting of 64.1 percent.)
There was a lot of huffing and puffing that Westbrook’s return would snip Durant’s numbers and kill his chances at MVP. Well, in the five games so far, KD’s at 32.6 points, 6.6 rebound and 6.4 assists. So… what’s the new manifested argument to try and tighten the MVP race?
3. Serge Ibaka (last week: 3)
There hasn’t been a severe statistical drop-off for Ibaka since Westbrook return. He’s averaging 16.2 points on 61.4 percent shooting with 9.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.
Where are his points coming from though? Early in the season, Westbrook was his primary setup man, and then things turned over to Durant looking for him mostly during Westbrook’s absence. Now, with both back, it’s Durant who has assisted Ibaka most, setting him up 12 times with Westbrook doing it six times.
4. Reggie Jackson (last week: 7)
Is Jackson back? Or at least back-ish? The raw numbers for him haven’t been all that bad over the last 30 days, but it’s been clear in watching him that something wasn’t right. He was playing uncomfortably.
I said it in last night’s recap, but having Westbrook back is going to really help Jackson, I think. He’s better off the ball as a secondary pick-and-roll player, or a cutter, or off a catch-and-drive. Asking him to orchestrate offense doesn’t seem to bring out the best he has to offer.
5. Derek Fisher (last week: 6)
In February, Fisher shot 48.9 percent from 3. The last two months, he averaging 7.3 points a game in under 20 minutes a night off the bench.
That’s really good production.
Will it come back to bite the Thunder? Is this just Fisher knocking down a whole bunch of contested shots on a hot spell? Will Brooks continue to lean on Fisher heavily in crunchtime with Westbrook back, along with the addition of Caron Butler?
6. Nick Collison (last week: 4)
7. Steven Adams (last week: 10)
Adams has been OK in his starting spot. He still struggles a bit on the defensive end and really has issues in getting back in transition. And he still fouls too much. But his physicality is wonderful, his offensive rebounding is great and he’s a really good catch-and-finish interior player.
8. Perry Jones III (last week: 8)
When Jones beat his man off the dribble Sunday against the Bobcats and threw down a powerful dunk, I’m sure you had the same thought I did: Why doesn’t he do that more?
9. Jeremy Lamb (last week: 9)
I have this growing fear that Lamb is about to draw the rotational short straw and find his minutes trimmed severely in favor of the veteran Butler. February was Lamb’s lowest scoring month this season (6.6 points) and he’s scored in single-digits in 10 of his last 12 games.
10. Hasheem Thabeet (last week: 12)
Hey! He did some kind of decent things!
Really happy for Thabeet. The guy has one of the most positive, uplifting attitudes you’ll see and he clearly has done his best to stay ready for when he was needed.
11. Thabo Sefolosha (last week: 5)
Out 4-6 weeks with a calf injury. Oof. The Thunder will miss Thabo, but they’ve played extended stretches before without him. The concern this time is him coming back right before the postseason. That’s a little scary.
12. Andre Roberson (last week: N/A)
He may be the future Thabo, but he’s not Thabo yet.
Inactives: Kendrick Perkins, Caron Butler