Do OKC Thunder Have Bigger Long-Term Problems Than Just LA Clippers?

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Do OKC Thunder Have Bigger Long-Term Problems Than Just LA Clippers?
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder have flaws, ones that may cause the end of their season.

The NBA doesn't have a "superteam" this year. Even with Oklahoma City's problems, a reasonable person could argue the Thunder are the favorites in the Western Conference, though the San Antonio Spurs have looked dominant in their two second-round wins over the Portland Trail Blazers. 

The Los Angeles Clippers defense is inconsistent. Though Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are still great players, the Spurs' top two guys are likely worse than those of the Clippers, Thunder and Miami Heat. When all is said and done, OKC may very well have the best chance to win the whole thing.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Oklahoma City, though, has issues of its own: thwarted offensive ball-movement and three-point defense.

The Thunder can still score when they're going well. After all, the Oklahoma City offense did finish seventh in points per possession this past season.

When Westbrook and Durant are creating efficient looks and hitting their shots, the Thunder attack is pretty impossible to stop. Just ask the Clippers, who saw those two combine for 63 points, 22 rebounds and 19 assists in OKC's 112-101 Game 2 victory.

So, we know the Thunder can score when everything is going right. That's obvious. Still, there are some ball-movement issues within the offense.

Even in a strong offensive effort, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to take more than half of the Thunder's shots in Game 2. There isn't much balance, and loads of isolation and plays without second options can hurt an offense against the elite of the NBA.

Somehow, though, the story always seems to end up falling back on Westbrook.

 

Let Russ Be Russ?

There's this prevailing narrative that consumes Thunder basketball: Are you getting Good Russ or Bad Russ? And should OKC, in fact, let Russ be Russ?

But isn't all of this getting a little old? In a way, aren't we being far too results-based in our thought process?

That's kind of the way we think, though. It's all about results, because outcomes are tangible. We can actually form a belief off what we're seeing. But with Westbrook, a difference in results doesn't necessarily mean a change in process.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Good Russ is usually the same guy as Bad Russ. The former just happens to make his shots.

Look at Westbrook's superb performance in Game 2, his third triple-double over his past five contests. Did he really do that much differently on the offensive end?

As Pablo Torre referenced on Thursday afternoon's Around the Horn, 21 of Westbrook's 31 points from that game came in possessions in which he never actually passed the ball. They started and ended with the rock in Russ' hands. But again, that wasn't so awful for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City had a pretty pointed Westbrook strategy against the Clippers. Either let him overpower Darren Collison or outquick Chris Paul. And if he's grabbing rebounds and getting out in transition, game over. It's done. The Thunder are going to score.

Essentially, Westbrook is consistent in style. He's just not constant in results, because the style is so volatile. But in reality, that is never going to change. Whether you let Russ be Russ or not, he's going to be the same guy. 

 

What We're Not Talking About

The real Westbrook inconsistency comes on the defensive end, and really, that's where the Thunder have plenty of problems, ones that the Clippers can continue to exploit and the Spurs or Heat could break down in later rounds were OKC to get that far in the playoffs.

Westbrook's defense tends to fluctuate between games, or even quarters, but isn't that true for plenty of players. When the Thunder point guard finds criticism, it's on the offensive end.

It's for "taking shots away" from Durant. It's for throwing up contested 19-footers with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. It's for over-dribbling instead of distributing first and foremost. 

The defense, though—that's a real critique. There's a reason you can view calling Westbrook an elite "crunch-time defender" as a complement or an insult. Essentially, the defensive effort isn't always there.

Now, "effort" in this case doesn't mean Russ isn't always playing hard. That would be a strange accusation to make of someone who always seems to be on the Autobahn while the game's other nine players cruise down some side street. It's really just a matter of intensity, and on a play-to-play basis, Westbrook's ferocity isn't always present.

In Game 1, Westbrook had one of those inconsistent defensive performances on Chris Paul. Even with all his speed and power, he just couldn't find a way to fight through the Clippers' screens:

Westbrook also gave into his gambling addiction in Game 1. He wasn't just jumping passing lanes, either. He was going after the ball no matter what.

And that's Russ' flaw on the defensive end: He seems to play the ball to a fault.

Look at how he defended some of these pick-and-rolls with Paul or Darren Collison. He tried going over screens, but found himself lunging for the ball and getting caught flat-footed on multiple occasions:

A defender doesn't need to play the ball, though. He just needs to play the position game.

Dominating defensively is about beating offensive players to spots. If you're always going for the ball, you'll often find yourself late getting to those places. That's what happened with Westbrook in the first game of the Clippers series.

But Game 2 was completely different. Westbrook wasn't just better because he had a triple-double. His point-guard defense was infinitely superior, incomparably improved. 

He fought through screens harder. He raced after Paul like he was crunch-time defending for 48 minutes. And when Russ has that energy, there aren't many point guards capable of playing better on-ball defense:

See how Westbrook fights over those picks and then forces the Clippers to rescreen? How noticeably different is that effort? Even when a good screen forced Westbrook away from the ball, he'd still find a way to contest the shot.

We all make a fuss out of the Thunder offense. 

Some of that falls on Scott Brooks and a series of uncreative play calls paired with odd substitution patterns. Some of it falls on personnel. After all, when you're running Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka out there with 10-Thumb Kendrick Perkins and the perennially indecisive Thabo Sefolosha, offense may suffer.

Really, though, defense could spell the end for this team.

 

Three-Point Defense

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Thunder have struggled to defend the three all year, allowing opponents to sink 35.8 percent of their threes on the third-most attempts in the regular season. In the playoffs, those numbers are down, but that's skewed by the Memphis Grizzlies' inability to sink the long ball.

This is a defense that ranked fifth in points allowed per possession this year. It should be able to stop offenses. Except for this one massive flaw, and teams that swing the ball around the perimeter well and have shooters on the outside can exploit it. 

Westbrook's propensity to gamble can leave guys out of position. You could say the same thing about Reggie Jackson's defense. 

Kendrick Perkins, meanwhile, is sluggish in help defense. And while Steven Adams is a budding defensive enforcer, he still has a habit of overcommitting to one side.

Ibaka may be one of the best housekeepers in the league, but he can't clean up everything.

It's no help to him that defenders like Derek Fisher and an unenthused Westbrook have a tendency to let point guards in the lane. That opens up the drive-and-kick and gives shooters even more opportunities to chuck it up from beyond the arc.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

So eventually, shooters become open on the perimeter, and teams like the Clippers, Spurs (even though the Thunder stormed through them in the regular season) and Heat can feast on those issues.

For the Thunder, it's about limiting three-point attempts. But Oklahoma City hasn't had much success in doing that either in the regular season or against the Clippers, who have attempted 56 long-range shots over the first two games of this series.

Now, these faults don't necessarily mean OKC's season is over.

We knew all of this going into the playoffs. We saw every one of these problems for 82 regular-season games. So, this isn't new. None of this is shocking.

But it is a reason to pick OKC to fall to a team that may be more complete. 

You could argue the Clippers fit that bill. Certainly the Spurs do, though the star power on San Antonio doesn't quite match up to that of the Thunder. And the Heat can beat anyone at their best.

The three-point defense and issues on the wings could be a problem for Oklahoma City. The Thunder are good enough to overcome those issues, but if teams find a way to exploit OKC's biggest flaws on a more consistent basis, Durant's and Westbrook's seasons could end earlier than they would like.

 

All statistics current as of May 9 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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