After two lackluster performances against the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has appeared to knock off all the inherent rust since returning from knee surgery.
Initial struggles were to be expected considering Westbrook missed nearly two months of the regular season. Team struggles, however—specifically on the defensive end—are not a promising sign as the 2013-14 season winds to a close.
The floor general has played extremely well of late. So well, in fact, that he’s actually been able to negate the 25 percent shooting clip he posted in the first two games since his return, as Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz points out via Twitter:
A 6-4 record over the past 10 games doesn't mean it’s time for fans to panic, but the Thunder haven’t been rolling along at the same clip that they were prior to Westbrook’s return.
Without the hyper-athletic point guard, Oklahoma City tallied a 20-7 record. Kevin Durant dominated during the month of January by averaging 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game on 54.9 percent shooting from the field and 43.6 percent shooting from downtown.
The lanky forward made a convincing case to be the front-runner for league MVP, and he’s been just as good since his running mate returned to action.
In seven games with RW back in the lineup, the Durantula is averaging 34.1 points, seven rebounds and 5.7 assists per game—so why has OKC posted a 3-4 mark since Westbrook’s return?
The answer is defense.
As The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry points out, “OKC watched the Suns score an opponent season-high 128 points tonight and shoot 52.5 percent. Phoenix made 15 of 27 3-pointers and got to the free throw line 39 times.”
“Watched” is the appropriate verb to use, because the Thunder never appeared to be dialed in on the defensive end—which was partly due to Phoenix’s hot shooting, but that doesn't excuse a 40-point third quarter from the Suns. OKC went on to lose, 128-122, to the upstart desert dwellers.
“We’ve got to get back to getting stops,” head coach Scott Brooks said, per Mayberry. “We’ve got to get back to having some toughness on the defensive end.”
Westbrook set a defensive tone early against the Suns by swiping three steals in the first quarter alone (two in the first two minutes). All of which led to easy transition dunks.
For whatever reason, though, that defensive intensity faded as the game went along.
The Thunder put up a ridiculous 41 points in the first quarter, but they still couldn’t manage to hold on for the win.
Fans may choose to overlook the poor defense as an anomaly, but Mayberry explained exactly how putrid Oklahoma City’s defense has been since Westbrook got back.
“Since the All-Star break, the Thunder is now yielding 109.2 points per game, 47.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.8 percent shooting from 3-point range. That’s Sixers territory. The last two categories are worse than Sixers territory.”
Considering that Michael Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young are the only viable NBA talents remaining on Philadelphia’s roster, it’s alarming that a squad as talented as OKC is making the Sixers look better defensively by comparison.
Mayberry also questioned Brooks’ decision to start 22-year-old sophomore Perry Jones III in place of the injured Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard:
Here’s a question I have about PJ3 in the starting lineup. If he’s viewed as the 'utility defender,' why is he being put on non-offensive players? He guarded Michael Kidd-Gilchrist while Kevin Durant was on Gerald Henderson in the Charlotte game. Tonight he came out on P.J. Tucker while Durant was on Gerald Green. I don’t get it.
Mayberry doesn’t even mention that Jones is a 6’11” tweener forward being asked to play alongside Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams in a comically massive starting five. That’s an X’s-and-O’s decision that New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson can get behind.
Losing Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins to injury is a letdown, but it shouldn't be impacting the Thunder’s defensive acumen to this degree. Perk’s player efficiency rating of 6.19 ranks him 329th out of 336 qualified players, while Sefolosha’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the court) after the All-Star break was an absurdly high 127.9 before his injury, per NBA.com.
There's reason to believe the Thunder are relying too heavily on their offense when Westbrook is a healthy cog in the rotation. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of opponents is 107.8 with Westbrook on the court and 103.7 when he's off it.
Logically speaking, the pace OKC plays at with Westbrook is higher, but that doesn't affect a stat based on points per possession. As a result, that statistic suggests that the Thunder may simply be trying to outscore opponents when Westbrook is added to the fold, rather then relying on their respectable defensive capabilities to win games.
Those four teams are quite literally nipping at OKC’s heels. If Brooks’ crew doesn’t figure out the defensive woes soon, its No. 1 overall seed—which comes with home-court advantage throughout the playoffs—will be squandered.
In the loaded Western Conference, that's not something KD, Westbrook and Co. want to have happen. Defensive issues and injuries are rearing their ugly head at the worst possible time. As a result, the Thunder must (no pun intended) weather the storm.