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Oklahoma City’s Crunch Time Misery

NewsOK.com

The Thunder have been extremely disappointing to start the season, and most of that comes down to their close game woes.

As we rapidly approach the quarter-mark of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have emerged as the most disappointing team in the NBA. With reigning MVP Russell Westbrook teaming up with former All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, the Thunder had championship-level expectations for this season. But so far, OKC has been far from title-worthy.

Even with as rough a start as OKC has had, their team statistics interestingly don’t really show a struggling team. They have the fifth-highest net rating in the league and are slowly closing on Boston for the top defensive spot.

Using just those stats and a couple others, OKC’s predicted Pythagorean record is actually a more than acceptable 12-7 before their game Wednesday night. But, that’s not where they are; not even close really. Oklahoma City’s actual record is 8-11, far below what both the numbers and fans expect.

If you are wondering how the predicted record is so far off just 19 games into the season, it is largely because the projection assumes your overall numbers will be a good indicator of how you will perform in clutch situations. But the Thunder haven’t followed this trend.

OKC Overall vs. Clutch PerformancesImage title

Much of that extremely scary -42.2 net rating comes from their defense, but I fully expect that to rebound pretty quickly. Some bad luck and fouling to extend games have inflated that number quite a bit, and the very strong Thunder defense should recover pretty quickly. It’s the other side of the ball, the 96.5 ORTG, that is a much harder fix.

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Sue Ogrocki - AP Photo

To be honest, many aspects of OKC’s late-game offensive struggles aren’t really quantifiable. Roster turnover and team chemistry are variables that play heavily into team success but are nearly impossible to account for. Building your team around three players who are accustomed to taking the final shot has created some understandable confusion surrounding when and how to defer to one another.


A good portion of their struggles can be chalked up to simply not executing down the stretch, but some of the problems lie deeper. In general, the Thunder offense is pretty simple. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, just that the Thunder have three extremely talented offensive players and have built the game plan to ensure they are the offensive priorities.

In many ways this explains why OKC’s most reliable end-of-game play is also the simplest: get the ball to Westbrook and let him run a pick-and-roll. Frequently, the roll man is Steven Adams who is a fantastic screener and usually gives Westbrook more than enough room to get up a good look.

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Westbrook misses the shot on this occasion, but it was a pretty good opportunity that you’d live with if you’re Billy Donovan. They can also run a different variation of the Westbrook P&R with Anthony as the screener instead.

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Anthony is nowhere near the screen-setter that Adams is, but he does provide the added threat of slipping out for an open three if his defender plays too far off like Tobias Harris does on this occasion. While the Thunder again miss that shot, it is a well-executed play and another open look.

Both of these plays created open shots in the last two minutes of close games, and while the lack of result is noteworthy, the missed shots aren’t what show the downside of the Thunder offense.

Scroll back up and watch the previous two plays again, but this time watch the three players not directly involved in the P&R. There is very little (if any) off-ball movement on either play. This isn’t a result of laziness or confusion, but an outcome of running an offense so centered around one or two guys on many possessions.

While this does help OKC grab a pretty high percentage of available offensive rebounds, it also feeds into some very bad habits. After the Thunder grab an offensive rebound, if they don’t immediately put it back up it is frequently kicked out to one of the three All-Stars who often revert back to their old isolation tendencies.

The Thunder are one of the most iso-heavy teams in the league, and that trend continues into crunch time where 69.2% of their field goals are unassisted. This pattern of habitual isolation and stationary off-ball offense creates a very limiting “my turn, your turn” offense at the end of games.

This worked for OKC much of last season as it wasn’t so much “my turn, your turn” as Westbrook’s turn forever, but that isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be — the game plan anymore. Running the offense through one or two players per possession leaves at least one of your supremely talented offensive stars watching the play instead of contributing to it.

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Rocky Widner - Getty Images

The good news for Thunder fans is that this end-of-game problem is certainly fixable. OKC has run plays near the end of games that have gotten good looks by utilizing more than just one-on-one talent. They ran this play near the end of the Detroit game which gave Westbrook one of his best looks of the night.

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It’s simple, but George running towards Westbrook after inbounding the ball creates just enough defensive hesitation for Westbrook to be able to get past his man. It’s the little things like this that look so obvious once they’re done that make the difference between a stagnant and fluid offense.

The Oklahoma City offense has more than enough talent to get where they need to be, but in the famous words of LeBron James, “We all know Rome wasn’t built in one day.” Sacrificing for the greater good is hard and changing ingrained habits is harder, but the Thunder have all the pieces to become the contenders they want to be. It’s just a question of whether they put them all together.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
When was the last season the Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics finished the season below .500?
Created 11/29/17
  1. 2014-15
  2. 2009-10
  3. 2008-09
  4. 2007-08

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