Week in Review: Panic
SIX THINGS FROM THE LAST WEEK OF THUNDER BASKETBALL
Much ado has been made about how the referees have officiated the Thunder this season. Kevin Pelton wrote an excellent article (ESPN Insider) discussing Russell Westbrook’s decline in free throw attempts, and on the season, Thunder opponents are taking an extra four free throws per game. It’s clear the Thunder has been on the wrong end of some calls, and this is excluding the missed moving screen that cost the Thunder a win against the Timberwolves.
But the most egregious calls, in my opinion, were the flagrant fouls assessed against Carmelo Anthony and Westbrook. Let’s go to the tape:
Anthony was assessed a Flagrant 2 on this play… a made basket with his defender clearly in the restricted area. Read the definition of a Flagrant 2, and tell me with a straight face that Anthony deserved that call:
“A flagrant foul-penalty (2) is unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent. It is an unsportsmanlike act and the offender is ejected immediately.”
And now the call against Westbrook:
Yet again the Thunder was assessed a flagrant foul on a shot attempt. Though Westbrook didn’t make the basket, his defender very clearly jumps into him. This was a monumental call in a close game because, not only did it take away two free throws for Westbrook, it also gave the Kings two free throws and the ball.
The league did rescind Westbrook’s flagrant but it allowed the flagrant 2 assessed against Anthony to stand. I have no words.
The Thunder, however, had plenty of words about the officiating. “[A] bunch of bull—-,” Westbrook said after the Portland game. Donovan and Paul George also aired their grievances, which resulted in $15,000 fines for all three of them.
The Thunder lost two close games to opponents with dynamic point guards in the past week: the Boston Celtics led by Kyrie Irving and the Portland Trail Blazers led by Damian Lillard. In both of the games, the Thunder was within striking distance with under two minutes to go, and in both games, defensive lapses prevented the Thunder from having an opportunity to win on the offensive end.
These critical breakdowns occurred when their opponent deployed high pick-and-roll action. The Thunder, to their credit, deployed differing strategies to defend, but none were remotely successful. Let’s take a look at these strategies:
Against Irving and the Celtics, it looks like the Thunder was in a designed switch on the high screen. Westbrook makes no effort to defend the screen, immediately switching on to Al Horford, and leaving Adams to defend Irving. This is incredibly problematic for two reasons. First, with no offense to Adams, he has no business defending one of the best point guards in the league on the perimeter. Second, with Adams defending beyond the arc, the Thunder has zero rim protection on the dribble drive. Predictably, Irving blows past Adams, and no help defense is in the paint to contest the layup.
Now at Portland:
Incredibly, with Roberson chilling on the bench, Billy Donovan decided Raymond Felton was the best hope to defend Lillard. In the above example, Adams shows hard while Felton fights over the screen. Grant and Westbrook are deep, ready to help if Lillard breaks to the paint. Yet, inexcusably, Felton and Adams let Jusuf Nurkic run free on the roll. Both Grant and Westbrook run to help, which leaves four (FOUR!) Thunder defenders woefully out of position. Nurkic makes a nice dish to C.J. McCollum who nails the wide-open three.
In the second example, Adams appears to drop into a zone. Zone is a solid strategy against a penetrating ball handler because it keeps everything in front and prevents not only the drive, but also the roll (though it leaves open an open jump shot off the screen). The problem here is that Adams doesn’t keep Lillard in front of him. Lillard blows by him, and Grant comes to help. This is almost OK, as Grant’s help defense is there to defend the layup, but Westbrook, in a particularly head-scratching moment, casually strolls to the paint, leaving McCollum wide-open again from deep.
Watch Westbrook closely. On the drive, he’s not there helping, he’s hunting for a rebound. Which, on some level, I get. There are three Thunder defenders collapsing on Lillard, which means Nurkic has a potential putback on a miss, but it’s not like Westbrook is even putting a body on Nurkic. There is only one good result on this play if you’re Westbrook, and that’s a rebound toward the sideline. Everything else is bad news.
The “Okay” Three
Going into the season, the Thunder seemingly boasted the best collection of three star players outside of the Warriors. Coined the OK3, Westbrook, George, and Anthony have combined to just be… well… okay. In the 230 minutes they’ve shared the court, the Thunder has outscored their opponents by a total of four points.
As mentioned, the OK3 has been okay at best. The biggest culprit has been a total lack of offensive flow. Nothing kills or prevents flow more than isolation plays. It should come as no shock, then, that the Thunder leads the NBA in isolation plays with more than 12 percent of all offensive plays in iso.
Unfortunately, the Thunder ranks 19th in the league at turning isolation into points, averaging a measly 0.87 points per isolation play (the Clippers, who the Thunder plays tonight, generate 1.1 points per isolation play).
With three of the best scorers in the league, it’s almost unfathomable that Oklahoma City’s idea of offense is literally the least imaginative approach possible. Either Donovan is bumfuzzled by the idea of secondary or off-ball action, or his players don’t listen to him. I don’t know which is worse, but since we are just 11 games in, I’ll reserve judgment. That being said, if you’re in the mood to judge, here are few more stats to help you condemn the Thunder offense:
- OKC ranks dead last in passes per game at 258 (the NBA-leading 76ers average 350)
- OKC ranks 19th in assists per game with 21 (the NBA-leading Warriors average 31)
- OKC takes the second most pull-up jumpers with 27 per game, yet rank in the bottom third at converting those attempts
Uh, more of this please.
Blowouts and Triple Doubles
The Thunder’s four wins have all been by ten points or more, and OKC is 4-0 in games where Westbrook records a triple-double. The Thunder is 0-7 in games decided by nine points or less and 0-7 in games where Westbrook fails to record a triple-double. [thinking emoji]
AND ONE MORE MAKES SEVEN
As a fan of the team with the longest losing streak in the NBA (tied with three other teams), the biggest question has to be whether the great OK3 experiment is a flop. A combination of factors has contributed to the putrid start, including stagnant offense, ill-timed defensive struggles, and bad breaks. But frustration and concern grows, leading to a team meeting after last night’s loss to the Nuggets.
The problems are obvious. Identifying the problem and fixing the problem are entirely different, however. We all knew the Thunder would experience some growing pains as they integrated George and Anthony, but we all hoped we’d see some progress. Yet here we are 11 games in and the Thunder still lacks an identity as a team.
That’s on Donovan, who’s yet to instill that identity. That’s on Westbrook, who’s the unequivocal leader. That’s on George, who must find a way to reliably contribute. And that’s on Anthony, who needs to change the way he plays to fit in.
The Thunder has 71 games to play but the change had better start soon. Preferably tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers. 8 PM CT on Fox Sports Oklahoma.