5 min read

Thunder end road trip with win over Wolves


Oklahoma City’s victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday has to leave a sour taste in the mouth of the Thunder. After they asserted their will on the game in the first quarter, it appeared as if OKC tried to hit the cruise control button for the remainder of the game. Firmly in control, OKC held a lead as large as 18 with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter. Minnesota took advantage of lackadaisical effort from OKC to get the deficit to within three with just 41.1 seconds to go in the game. Kevin Durant scored the final 12 points for the Thunder, and that was enough for OKC to get out of Minnesota with a win.

The win counts, but the Thunder can’t feel too great about how their three-game road trip turned out and their general level of play as of late. They survived their matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, blew a late lead against the Portland Trail Blazers, and held off the Wolves Tuesday. Is the new norm for the Thunder or if they’re just dealing with the duldrums of an 82-game season? Whether it is slippage or complacency, there are negative trends popping up.

You’re going to see an alarming trend if you look at recent box scores for OKC. The Thunder are in the midst of a softer portion of their schedule, but they seem to be struggling to find any kind of consistent disposition on defense. Entering Tuesday’s game against Minnesota, OKC was allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions since Christmas (nine games). This is rather alarming because the Thunder allowed 96.5 points per 100 possessions in the nine games leading up to Christmas, ranking fourth overall in the league during that nine-game window.

Some of the opponents the Thunder faced after Christmas have been the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and the aforementioned Lakers and Trail Blazers. Each of these teams have something in common: none of them are currently playoff-eligible. Those six teams combined to average 114.2 points against the Thunder. Entering the game against Minnesota, OKC had given up 108.6 points per game over their last eight. That’s simply not going to cut it.

Heading into Tuesday, there were legitimate red flags that pop up during the post-Christmas window that was mentioned earlier. The Thunder gave up nearly 116.1 points per 100 possessions when Enes Kanter was on the floor. Luckily for team, Kanter can mask this by scoring at a high and efficient rate. The Thunder averaged 115.0 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court. Cameron Payne has been an improvement as the backup point guard, but the Thunder gave up 111.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and scored 101.1 points per 100 possessions.

Out of players who have played at least 100 minutes since Christmas, the three worst Defensive Ratings come from reserves (Kanter, Payne, and Dion Waiters at 110.0). Two out of the three players are perimeter players. That speaks to one of the problems for the Thunder: perimeter defense. A tip of the hat to fellow DT writer, Jon Hamm, as he tweeted that OKC’s previous nine opponents prior to the game against Minnesota shot 39.2 percent from 3-point range. With San Antonio’s rapid ball movement and Golden State’s relentless attack from 3-point range, these numbers present a major cause for concern when it comes to thinking about the playoffs.

This team can score with anyone in the league. What’s going to matter is what they can do on the defensive end of the floor. Ranking third overall in the West, a deep run in the playoffs is going to likely require them beating both Golden State and San Antonio. OKC possesses the talent to conceivably beat one of the teams, but the current issues on defense likely leave them coming up short of beating both of them.

The promising thing about all of this: Billy Donovan and the team are well aware of the issue, and the calendar says January. They still have time to either correct these issues internally or make a deal that can help alleviate the problems on defense, but both options present their own unique challenges.

What does Tuesday’s victory against the Wolves show in relation to the issues on defense? The jury is still out in regards to that. The message has clearly been delivered that they need to step up on the defensive end of the floor. We know what they are capable of on offense, but time will ultimately tell what the Thunder are made of defensively. That will make the difference in how far they can truly go.


  • One last point on defense before focusing on offense: Tuesday’s game was almost a no-win situation for OKC in terms of defending the 3-point line. They were scorched by Portland from beyond the arc in their previous game, and Minnesota went just 7-of-18 from 3. Great success, right? Not so much. Portland takes the fifth-most 3s in the league (28.2 per game). Minnesota came into the matchup taking a league-low 15.2 attempts per game.
  • There are times where Kevin Durant looks like an unstoppable machine on offense. This was on display early and late in the game. In addition to scoring the final 12 for OKC, he scored 11 nearly effortless points in the opening quarter. My point might be a bit of a mischaracterization because there are some machines that don’t operate as well as Durant.
  • I see you, Steven Adams. He showed solid patience and footwork in the post here in the first quarter. Nice to see his game on offense expand a bit.
  • Donovan received his first technical foul of his NBA coaching career. It came with just over 25 seconds to go in the opening quarter. You knew things were getting serious when he uncrossed his arms on the sideline.
  • Fun fact (not if you’re from Minnesota): the Wolves have been outscored 324-145 from 3-point range over their last 12 games. It’s hard to imagine a team can succeed in today’s NBA when they’re so abysmal from 3-point range.
  • Payne is now 12-of-23 from 3 in his last nine games. At the very least, he’s outdoing D.J. Augustin when it comes to being a backup point guard who can space the floor.
  • Not like they need more help offensively, but Russell Westbrook is doing a great job creating a two-man game with both Adams and Kanter. Both centers are at different stages in terms of skill sets offensively, but Westbrook does a great job working off both of them.
  • Andre Roberson hit the top corner of the backboard on a left corner 3 just before the end of the opening half. He did what anyone would do in that situation: pat himself on the chest and said, “My bad.”
  • I’m not sure how you could describe OKC’s effort in the second half. Putrid was the only word I could come up with. They literally looked as if they were hoping they could simulate the remainder of the game and get out of town.
  • Nikola Pekovic was inactive for the Wolves. Seeing him on the sideline made me wonder who wins in a legitimate fight between Pekovic and Adams.

Next up: Hosting the Mavericks on Wednesday.