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Five Thoughts on the Thunder’s Six-Game Winning Streak

Five Thoughts on the Thunder’s Six-Game Winning Streak

The Oklahoma City Thunder is in the midst of a six-game winning streak — the top active streak in the NBA. With the team’s record at 20-15 and momentum finally on the Thunder’s side, I wanted to take a look at the previous six games and discuss a few thoughts.

Let’s get right to it.

(1) Russell Westbrook’s Shot Selection Has Been Key

Russell Westbrook has been electric during the winning streak, averaging 30 points, 10.3 assists and 8.3 rebounds on 56 percent shooting. He’s also hit 40 percent of his shots from long distance but that number doesn’t tell the entire story. His willingness to curb the volume of three-point attempts has correlated directly with his improved play.

In the 29 games leading up to the winning streak, Westbrook was firing 5.6 attempts from deep on a per game basis, hitting just 30 percent of them. There were nights he was efficient but those shots in general are disruptive and hardly the best look the team can get. The offense can’t reach its potential if it’s hijacked by low-percentage looks from a below-average three-point shooter.

Since the winning streak began on December 18 versus Denver, Westbrook has taken only 1.7 three-pointers per game — never taking more than three in any of the contests. His ability to fight the urge to take poor shots from beyond the arc, instead deferring to one of his more efficient teammates or getting a better look from mid-range, has revolutionized the Thunder offense. His shot chart from the last six games, via Synergy:

There will likely be nights where he slips into a trance and fires 10+ from deep but limiting such evenings is something he’s getting remarkably better at. His deference from long distance and mid-range renaissance has made the Thunder much more dangerous.

(2) The Free Throws Are Still Problematic

The Thunder is hitting 71.3 percent of its free throws on the season — second-worst in the NBA. You’d think things would have improved greatly over the course of the current winning streak, but that hasn’t really been the case.

12/18 vs Denver: 10/15 (66.7 percent)

12/20 vs Utah: 19/22 (86.4 percent)

12/22 vs Atlanta: 19/31 (61.3 percent)

12/23 @ Utah: 13/16 (81.3 percent)

12/25 vs Houston: 18/23 (78.3 percent)

12/27 vs Toronto: 23/33 (69.7 percent)

All told, that’s 102-of-140 from the stripe over the last six games, good for 72.8 percent. This is one of those things that needs to improve because it’s going to cost the team some games sooner rather than later — and don’t get me started on how problematic it could become if not improved before the playoffs.

(3) Maybe Melo Has Accepted His Role

I waited six games before buying-in on Carmelo Anthony accepting his role, but he’s done a fantastic job of being selective during the winning streak. In the 29 games prior to the streak starting, Melo was taking 16.3 shots per game and making 40 percent. In the six games since, he’s shooting 13.7 times per game and hitting 45 percent. He’s taking fewer from the mid-range, relying more on catch-and-shoot and generally moving the basketball better within the Thunder offense. As a result, his minutes are becoming more valuable.

His six-game shot chart:

He could always stand to take fewer in the mid-range but he’s moving in the right direction. Whoever said that old dogs can’t learn new tricks?

(4) The Third Quarter Has Improved — But Not Solved

The third quarter was a house of horrors prior to the streak but winning games hasn’t absolved the team of all its troubles. The Thunder has shot 53.6 percent from the floor in the third quarter over the last six games — with an aFG% of 66.5 percent — which is an improvement. However, OKC has outscored teams by just two points (166-164) in the third over the span and has been outscored by double-digits twice.

12/18 vs Denver: OKC 18, DEN 34

12/20 vs Utah: OKC 34, UTAH 23

12/22 vs Atlanta: OKC 18, ATL 31

12/23 @ Utah: OKC 29, UTAH 21

12/25 vs Houston: OKC 31, HOU 30

12/27 vs Toronto: OKC 36, TOR 25

This looks much-improved outside of the clunkers against Denver and Atlanta, but like the free throw issues, the Thunder still needs to get better at not falling flat after halftime. We’ve seen what can happen enough times already.

(5) Paul George Has Been a Sniper

Paul George has had a strange season thus far but has come into his own recently. He’s shooting 48.2 percent during the winning streak (aFG% of 64.7 percent) and has been absolutely blistering opposing defenses from long range.

His shot chart from the winning streak:

George has hit 20/41 three-pointers (48.8 percent) during the winning streak — the crown jewel being a 7/10 performance on Wednesday versus the Raptors. There’s still a lot to be desired in the mid-range but little complaining can be done with him being so deadly from distance. He’s averaging 21 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals over the last six games. His defense has remained elite all season.