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How OKC Thunder Can Avoid Falling out of 2013 NBA Title Picture

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How OKC Thunder Can Avoid Falling out of 2013 NBA Title Picture
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Envisioning the Oklahoma City Thunder as anything less than an NBA title contender is seemingly absurd. And Kevin Durant and company would like to keep it that way.

Oklahoma City has lost two straight, and 3-of-4 against factions above .500. Panicking after a few startling losses can't be construed as proper etiquette. Not for a usually dominant outfit like that of Thunder.

Any losses against potential playoff opponents at this stage, however, is slightly troubling. Finishing the season on a hot streak doesn't guarantee anything, but numerous defeats at the hands of teams that will stand between you and a title is unnerving.

What Oklahoma City has come to find is that outgunning everybody—in the Western Conference especially—isn't a viable long-term option. It takes a complete effort to emerge victorious consistently.

By most accounts, that's exactly what this team gives.

The Thunder rank second in offensive efficiency with 112.5 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the Miami Heat (112.6).  They're defense isn't in shambles either; they rank eighth in efficiency (102.9).

There isn't some innate defect plaguing the Thunder, though. Their collective struggles are ones that can be corrected.

How?

By making some slight adjustments.

 

Interior Defense

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
OKC needs more resistance in the paint.

Once again, Oklahoma City's defense isn't broken. Far from it, in fact.

As one of the league's more explosive teams, the Thunder are able-bodied enough to get back in transition and rank sixth in rebounding.

Their problem (especially lately) is in the paint.

On the season, they're allowing 40.4 points in the paint per game (13th). Over their last three—in which they're 1-2—they're relinquishing 53.3, more than any other team in the league.

Oklahoma City has to do a better job of protecting the rim. It's leading the league in blocks per game (7.5), so there's no reason to be handing out points in the paint like business cards.

Relinquishing 72 points in a recent loss to the Denver Nuggets was especially troubling.

A look at some bad decisions and defensive breakdowns by the Thunder.

As the video above shows, so much of this comes down to protecting the ball (spoiler). Deciphering when the appropriate time to switch or go over screens is key as well.

One particular play here shows Andre Iguodala going around JaVale McGee, impeding Russell Westbrook's path. Instead of Serge Ibaka sliding to the weak side to cut off his path to the basket, Westbrook runs around McGee, catching up with Iggy far too late.

Avoiding collapses such as these is imperative as Oklahoma City prepares for its postseason push. Savvy factions like the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Nuggets know how to capitalize on poor defensive sets.

By communicating more effectively on screens and shoring up the path to rim, the Thunder will be more adequately prepared to make a play for the title.

 

Turnovers

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Durant and Westbrook need to limit their offensive transgressions.

The Thunder rank second in turnovers committed per game (15.7), and as we just saw, excessive turnovers lead to easy scoring opportunities.

Mitigating their mistakes on the offensive is then imperative to their success in the playoffs. They've committed 20 or more turnovers on 10 separate occasions this season, tied for second most in the league.

When committing those 20 turnovers, Oklahoma City is 6-4. Managing to remain above .500 in such contests is impressive, as well as a testament to the Thunder's potency. For a team that is 31 games over .500 on the year, though, nearly-even basketball isn't good enough.

The biggest culprits are, predictably, Durant and Westbrook. They combine for 6.9, or 44 percent, of the team's misgivings.

This is something they're going to want to correct, and soon. More than their record suggests.

Why?

Because in 14 of their 19 losses, the Thunder as a whole committed more than 15 turnovers. Overall, they're averaging 16.9 turnovers in losses, above their already astronomical season average.

By comparison, when they cough the ball up 12 or fewer times, they're a perfect 17-0. 

Sensing a pattern?

Oklahoma City has proved more than capable of winning when being borderline careless with the ball, but it's won even more when protecting it.

Imagine how much more dangerous the Thunder would be if they limited their turnovers.

Scary, I know.

 

Ball Movement

Harry How/Getty Images
More ball movement, please.

Aside from being more cognizant of one's handle, a surefire way to limit turnovers is to be more unpredictable on offense.

Personally, I find it near impossible to criticize the Thunder's offense, especially when Westbrook is hitting his shots. 

That said, they rank 21st in assists per game (21.6) and despite their highlight-reel tendencies, there is room for more ball movement.

Nearly 15 percent of all Oklahoma City's offensive plays are isolation sets, and the team leads the league in points scored per iso-possesion (0.91). The Thunder are only shooting 38.9 percent in those situations, though.

As a group, they convert on 48.2 percent of their shot attempts and average 0.99 points per possession (second). Running iso-oriented sets is not doing any wonders for their offense.

Good things happen when you move the ball.

What do the Thunder need to improve upon most before the playoffs?

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Moving the ball more, and perhaps getting away from an abundance of stagnant play-calls, would.

When dishing out 25 or more assists, the Thunder are a domineering 14-2. In losses, they're averaging just 19.4 assists, the equivalent to 29th in the NBA.

Weapons like Durant and Westbrook must be properly utilized in the half court, and there is a place for running some isolation plays. Focusing on ball movement and involving fellow teammates, though, has led to more wins.

And it will ultimately help culminate in a more fulfilling postseason.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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