This NBA season will be a failure for the Oklahoma City Thunder if they’re not hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy at the end of it all. With one of the deepest rosters in the whole league and two legitimate megastars, OKC has what it takes to reach the mountaintop, but that doesn’t mean it is without flaws.
The Thunder have cooled off significantly since the All-Star break, going just above .500 since that point. There are a number of reasons to explain the subpar performance, like the return of Russell Westbrook and injuries to starters Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha.
But the biggest factors—and the two discussed here that the Thunder have to improve on if they are serious about contending for the title—have been poor defense and questionable decision-making on offense.
Defense, Especially from Beyond the Arc
You need athleticism and tenacity to be a good defensive team, and OKC has both of those traits. The third—and most important—part of the equation is effort, and that’s been the missing link for the Thunder over the last month-and-a-half.
Playing without Perkins (until Apr. 3) and Sefolosha (until Tuesday), two of the better defenders in the league, has certainly hurt, but the team isn’t playing hard on that end of the court and it’s showing up in the form of disturbing numbers:
|Entire Season||Post All-Star Break|
|Opponent Points Per Game||99.8||105.3|
|Opponent Field Goal Percentage||43.5%||44.8%|
|Points Per Shot||1.19||1.27|
The offense is always going to be there when you have Kevin Durant and Westbrook running the show, but locking in on the defensive end takes this team over the hump and makes them one of the best in the league.
Some of those defensive woes are a matter of intensity (it has been a long and grueling regular season) and the lack of leadership (the aforementioned losses of Perkins and Sefolosha) that should pick up once postseason play begins.
But there is also a structural weakness in the way this team has played defense all year that is extremely problematic: they can’t defend the three-pointer.
|Opponents' 3-Point Success vs. OKC|
That’s a concern regardless of the opponent, but it’s downright terrifying considering the teams they have to face in the playoffs:
|Western Conference Sharpshooters|
|Team||Three-Point Percentage (NBA Rank)||Percentage of Shots from 3s|
|San Antonio Spurs||40.0% (1st)||25.5%|
|Dallas Mavericks||38.5% (2nd)||27.4%|
|Golden State Warriors||37.8% (5th)||28.9%|
|Phoenix Suns||37.3% (6th)||30.2%|
|Portland Trailblazers||37.0% (8th)||29.1%|
|Houston Rockets||35.5% (17th)||33.0%|
|Los Angeles Clippers||35.4% (18th)||29.0%|
Those teams shoot the three ball well and shoot it often, which will put head coach Scott Brooks and the Thunder defense to the test.
Relying on the three-pointer can be dangerous for any team, but it is also the great equalizer. When the long-range bombs are falling, it can negate the tremendous talent advantage in the Thunder’s corner. OKC has already experienced that a number of times this season, including in a loss to the Phoenix Suns thanks to Gerald Green’s eight three-pointers:
The defense as a whole needs to get its act together before the playoffs start, but Coach Brooks needs to figure out a better way to close out on shooters and prevent teams from thriving beyond the arc. If he doesn’t, all of the potential playoff opponents—except the Memphis Grizzlies—will make him pay.
Taking Care of the Basketball
When you are as offensively devastating as OKC, it’s a crime to turn the ball over and bail out the opposing defense. Unfortunately, that has been an issue for the Thunder in the past, and it is no different this season.
Only three teams turn it over more frequently than the Thunder: Denver, Houston and Philadelphia (for the curious readers). OKC does play with tempo, but they play at the slowest pace of the seven most turnover-prone teams in the league, according to ESPN’s advanced team stats:
|Turnovers and Pace|
|Team||Turnovers Per Game (Rank)||Pace (Rank)|
|Philadelphia 76ers||16.7 (30th)||101.8 (1st)|
|Houston Rockets||15.6 (29th)||98.6 (5th)|
|Denver Nuggets||15.3 (28th)||100.4 (3rd)|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||15.2 (27th)||98.1 (9th)|
|Golden State Warriors||15.0 (26th)||98.2 (8th)|
|Los Angeles Lakers||14.9 (24th)||100.9 (2nd)|
|Phoenix Suns||14.9 (24th)||98.3 (6th)|
OKC’s two primary ball-handlers rank in the top five of individual turnovers per game (Westbrook is the worst offender in the league with 4.0 per game while Durant is tied for fifth with 3.6 per game—not a recipe for success.
We have already discussed the struggling Thunder defense, and turning the ball over doesn’t help matters by creating easy scoring opportunities for the opposition. That’s especially true in the playoffs, when the game slows down and transition opportunities are few and far between.
It’s exceptionally hard to beat OKC when it is playing well, so the Thunder can’t afford to beat themselves by turning it over.
If they can address these two major problems in the playoffs, OKC will fancy its chances of making it through the Western side of the playoff bracket and hoisting a championship banner in the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Note: All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and were accurate before Tuesday night's games.
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