With 25 games between now and the playoffs, the stretch run of the Thunder’s regular season is upon us. I’ve already discussed OKC’s difficult remaining schedule, so let us now focus on a few of the finer details that will likely determine how everything plays out.
Straight to it.
Can Paul George Stay Hot?
Paul George is having himself a season in OKC, averaging 28.7 points, 8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.3 steals — all of which are career-best numbers. The MVP/DPOY candidate is hoisting just under 10 threes per game, splashing 40.6 percent of them. He has six 40-point games, 18 double-doubles (14 more than all of last season), and just last week he messed around and got a triple-double.
As far as good days go, PG has had a few of them.
The Thunder won 11 of 13 heading into the All-Star break, with George averaging a casual 35.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.3 steals in the stretch. He took 12 threes per game and converted just under 46 percent of them, scoring 30+ in 10 of the 13 contests — including back-to-back 45+ outbursts in wins over the Rockets and Trail Blazers. He also dunked on/out-dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo on national television, hit the 4-point play over Jimmy Butler to win in Philadelphia, and that triple-double I mentioned? It was his first in five years.
All in the last 13 games.
While PG has been masterful of late, it’s important to note the Thunder needed those performances to be successful. Ten of the 13 games were decided by 10 points or less, five more were decided by six points or less, and several remained up in the air well into the final minutes. George legitimized his MVP campaign by loading the team on his back and navigating them through it. But can he do that every night from here on out?
Will he have to?
While I have no concern about PG experiencing a post-All-Star slump like last season (everything was Melo’s fault anyway), the guy is averaging 32.4 PPG on 43 percent shooting from three since the turn of the new year — numbers that are almost impossible to maintain. Should he struggle at all, or even see positive regression closer to his season averages, some of his inhuman workload from the last 13 games (+ more) will need to be taken on by others. That’s what the rational part of me says, at least. He couldn’t possibly keep this up, could he?
If George takes this thing home and gets the Thunder into the 2-seed? Yeah, I think he could win MVP. Depends on what happens with Giannis and Harden, obviously. But PG going bananas for 25 games and OKC leap-frogging Denver would make his case very legitimate. It wouldn’t hurt to drop 30+ every night and show out on national television for good measure. There’s several opportunities for that.
But if PG needs to sell some shares of the Thunder offense late in the season, against a difficult schedule — that wouldn’t be surprising or disappointing at all. Russell Westbrook has taken the passenger seat in OKC, deferring to and facilitating for his superstar running mate to great success. Though Westbrook has been brilliant, averaging a triple-double for the third straight season, he’ll need to hit some shots and pick up the slack should George ever stop hanging 40 every night. Just because PG has it rolling right now doesn’t mean the ‘ol gunslinger won’t be necessary.
With the NBA’s third-best defensive rating at the All-Star break (105.2), the Thunder defense has been the recipient of much praise. Led by George’s Defensive Player of the Year-level play, OKC forces the most turnovers in the NBA, leads the league in steals, and has the versatility to match-up with just about anyone moving forward.
So why is the defense something to watch down the stretch?
Well — 2019 is living off 2018’s resume. Here’s a look at some defensive metrics broken down by month:
|OPP 2ND PTS
The Thunder defense was elite prior to the start of the new year, giving up 105.6 PPG for a league-best defensive rating of 101.7 in the 36 games.
In the 21 games since, however, teams are scoring 118.1 PPG against the Thunder, and the defensive rating has fallen to 111.2 — 17th-best in the NBA over that span. Quite a difference.
While the slide has been offset by an offensive renaissance (more on that in a second), the Thunder’s biggest chance to become a threat threat would increase greatly if they find that early season form on the defensive. For all the length and versatility OKC has on the floor, all too often it seems like the entire thing is foiled by teams simply drawing Steven Adams out of the paint and getting easy looks at the rim. Opponents are grabbing too many offensive rebounds and scoring an increasing amount of second-chance points. Easy buckets here and there. Things get discombobulated.
The Thunder still menace you with a thieves guild of George and Westbrook — the NBA’s number one and two in steals per game. Terrance Ferguson terrorizes opposing wings with energy that can best be described as “20-year-old man energy.” Jerami Grant can guard 3-5 and has the athleticism to make every shot a tough one. Adams is the enforcer — quietly doing every little thing that matters and wiping his sweat on opposing big men while waiting for free throws.
The parts are all there. Nerlens Noel is having an underrated season as the backup big man. Maybe you get Andre Roberson, too, I don’t know. The group just needs to find their way back to where things started on the defensive end. The recent uptick in offense has been nice, but as they say, you always dance with the one that brought you. The Thunder’s calling card is their defense and they have some issues to iron out.
Much like the defense, the Thunder offense transformed throughout the first 57 games of the season. In the early going, OKC clamped down defensively and won games while the offense sputtered. More recently, it’s been the exact opposite — especially from downtown.
Here’s the offense by month:
The Thunder had the 20th-ranked offensive rating in the NBA prior to the new year, posting an ORTG of 108.0 in the 36 games. They averaged 112.1 PPG and shot 32.2 percent from long range — dead last in the NBA.
In the 21 games since, the ORTG has jumped to 114.4 — seventh-best over the span. The Thunder are scoring 121.1 PPG in those contests and hitting an even 40 percent from 3-point range, which is second-best in the league in 2019.
Any team deploying George and Westbrook is going to be a threat to get buckets on a nightly basis, so it’s no surprise to see the offense growing stronger as they hit their stride. PG has been devouring the basketball world in 2019 and Russ has like 100 straight triple-doubles — of course things are looking up.
However, the biggest thing here is the 3-point shooting.
While George obviously carries the team from long distance, we know Westbrook isn’t the cause for the dramatic increase in OKC’s three-point percentage. Increasingly strong shooting from others — namely, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, and Dennis Schroder — might just be the linchpin to the Thunder’s offensive success moving forward.
Here are their 2018-19 three-point percentages compared to their career average:
Ferguson: 38.3% (36.3%)
Grant: 37.3% (31.9%)
Schroder: 36% (32.7%)
In addition to George continuing his Splash Brother-esque season from downtown, the Thunder’s offensive upswing/rise to three-point prominence might only continue if the unlikely trio continues shooting above their career 3-point percentages — a somewhat risky proposition. Making those shots opens up everything, especially for George and Westbrook. A lot is riding on the outcome of “Which 3-point shooting team are the Thunder, really?”
Keep Firing, Young Ferg
Piggybacking on the portion above, I felt the need to single out Terrance Ferguson.
After shooting 7.7 percent on 2.2 3PA in October, and 33.3 percent on 3.3 3PA in November, hope for Ferg was quickly dwindling. He rebounded with a 36.7 percent clip in December, but only took 2.1 per game. As such, his development into a true 3-&-D weapon looked unlikely in year two. I mean, the “D” was there. The “3” part? Not so much.
However, Ferguson caught the holy ghost at the start of 2019, hitting 47.9 percent of his 5.5 3PA in January, followed by 36.1 percent of his 5.1 3PA in February. As a result, his 3-point percentage is up to 38.3 percent this season — best on the team outside of George.
As for what this means for the Thunder offense, check out the offensive rating by month when charted next to Ferguson’s monthly 3-point percentage:
With Westbrook struggling mightily from long range, Ferg stepped up and made himself a weapon in the Thunder backcourt — creating space and a more free-flowing offense in the process. He’s certainly not the only reason for OKC’s offensive turnaround. He didn’t save the offensive rating by himself. That being said, his impact shouldn’t be understated.
Though it’s no safe bet to assume the 20-year-old will continue burning nets down, the Thunder are infinitely more dangerous when defenses must account for his presence. His three-point shooting (volume and percentage) down the stretch will play an underrated role in how the season turns out. He needs to keep firing with confidence when the offense presents the opportunity.
Some quicker, less wordy items of note:
Steven Adams/Nerlens Noel: With Steven Adams looking progressively more banged up as OKC approached the All-Star Game, his ability to stay effective throughout all 82 + playoffs began being called into question. How Billy Donovan manages Big Kiwi is something to keep an eye on moving forward. If that means more Nerlens Noel, I’m ready for more Nerlens Noel. He’s been good and the playoff health of Adams is big for OKC. Billy needs to be careful.
Markieff Morris Fitting In: Markieff is officially in OKC, wearing number five, and could be available as soon as Friday’s game versus Utah. I don’t know that it hurts the Thunder if it doesn’t work out — I mean, they’re third in the West with Patrick Patterson as the backup power forward. However, if Keef buys in, accepts a lower usage role, and doesn’t tank the defense with his shotty PnR coverage? He could be a guy that helps ease some of PG’s scoring burden and you have to love the upside for that alone.
Annnd Andre Roberson: The biggest unknown in all of this is the potential return of Andre Roberson. It’s not very often you could add one of the league’s best defenders to your team late in the regular season, but OKC could do just that if he’s cleared in time to make a difference. There’s still no word on his status — no medical updates or tidbits picked up from practice. I’m not expecting him back this season, but he could change OKC’s trajectory with a triumphant return. As per usual, fans will have to continue waiting for news on number 21.