With 8:40 left in Thursday night’s game between the Thunder and the Nuggets, Oklahoma City held a two-point lead. Russell Westbrook grabbed a rebound on one end of the court and never looked back. Or around. He dribbled down the floor, waited for a screen, switched onto Mason Plumlee, and settled for a pull-up midrange jumper with 14 seconds left on the shot clock … that Plumlee blocked. The Nuggets tied the game on the next possession, and soon after, they would take the lead for good in their 102–94 win.
That fourth quarter possession was the beginning of the end. OKC was outscored by eight in the final quarter and out-assisted by 11 in the game. This season the Thunder have a net rating of minus-54.8 in the final five minutes of a close game (a margin of five points or fewer). This entire season, they’ve completed only three assisted field goals in clutch-time minutes. Three.
Denver came into this game 19th in defensive efficiency, and the Thunder managed only 100.0 points per 100 tonight. That's basically the Suns offense. https://t.co/7QJnLulkNj— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 10, 2017
A few minutes after the Plumlee block, with the Thunder down five, Westbrook again pulled up for a midrange jumper with Paul George open in the corner. He missed.
If you were to sift through this game, you would find many more images like the one above. In this broken Thunder offense, George, one of the most dynamic scorers in the league, has been more or less relegated to third fiddle. George is to this team what Chris Bosh was to the Miami Heat in 2011 — a glorified space creator. On Thursday, George attempted only one shot in the fourth quarter.
“I’m not gonna create a narrative on that kind of stuff,” Billy Donovan said postgame regarding the shot distribution. “It’s one game.”
This season, on only 49 touches per game, George has been exceptionally efficient. He is averaging nearly 0.4 points per touch, 11th in the league among players averaging more than 20 minutes a game. Anthony is averaging 0.35 points per touch, but on 60.3 touches per game. Westbrook, meanwhile, is averaging more than 90 touches a game and only 0.21 points per touch.
This is a broken play after a pull-up 3—from , you guessed it, Russ —where the rebounder kicks the ball out to Anthony. Even with a defender in his face, another one charging, and George wide open and calling for the ball, Anthony takes this shot. Anthony had 28 points Thursday night and shot well from 3 (60 percent on 10 attempts), but his one-track mind is contributing to Oklahoma City’s problem.
In an ideal offense, Anthony should act as the spacer, the Chris Bosh, the third wheel on a car driven by Russ and navigated by George. But so far, Melo hasn’t been defending or doing the dirty work demanded of a stretch 4 in the 2017 NBA (he had zero assists against the Nuggets), and it’s costing the Thunder. They are four points per 100 possessions worse than they were last season, and though they have improved on defense (2nd in the league), they have beaten only one team above .500 so far and have lost four games in a row. Thursday night’s problems have been around all season; the Thunder just haven’t spent every night on national television.
“If we’re not frustrated, then that’s a big problem,” said Raymond Felton after the game. The Thunder held a long team meeting following the final buzzer.
Melo on his level of frustration: "It’s none. It’s no frustration. We’re talking things through. We’re trying to figure it out."— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 10, 2017
So who’s to blame for the mess in OKC? Oklahoma City’s roster isn’t properly fitted to be a complete team, but the narrative surrounding the squad also seems to be that there’s no system set in place by Donovan. Even if the team’s stars are causing the system to malfunction, the onus to fix things falls with the coach. Should Donovan mix up the lineups? Maybe stagger his three stars to maximize their skills? Donovan needs answers fast; his job may depend on it.
Sure, OKC may shake out of this four-game losing streak, and it has the talent to do so. But in the long run, these problems can’t be glossed over with hot shooting nights from Anthony and triple-doubles from Westbrook. What looked so tantalizing on paper in the summer of endless trades is now looking like a problem.