The Oklahoma City Thunder believe that they’ve got what it takes to hang with the absolute best that the Western Conference has to offer. But it’s looking like they’re going to have to prove it a lot sooner than they might have liked.
After a 116-107 loss to the Miami Heat on Monday—one in which OKC didn’t have superstar point guard Russell Westbrook, who was serving an automatic one-game suspension for picking up his 16th technical foul of the season Saturday—the Thunder now sit at 42-29, in sixth place in the West. They’ve dropped three straight, and are 5-9 since the All-Star break, tied with the Pelicans for the league’s sixth-worst record in that span. And things aren’t about to get easier for Billy Donovan’s club: In a turn we’ve known was coming, OKC’s final 11 games include a home-and-home with the Raptors plus matchups against the Pacers, Nuggets, Pistons, and Rockets and a season-ending road trip to Milwaukee.
There are some friendlier games on the slate—thank heaven for the walking-wounded Grizzlies, nosediving Mavs, and deteriorating Lakers—but overall Oklahoma City will face the West’s second-toughest remaining schedule. Combine that with ongoing surges from the Clippers, Spurs, and Jazz, and, all of a sudden, the Thunder find themselves sliding down the table at the absolute worst time. According to Inpredictable’s win probability metrics, the likelihood that Oklahoma City will land the seventh or eighth seed—meaning a Round 1 date with either the Warriors team that smoked them (without old pal Kevin Durant) Saturday, or a Nuggets side against whom they’re winless in three tries this season—is now higher than 60 percent.
Maybe the best version of the Thunder—one featuring MVP-caliber Paul George, Russell Westbrook in possession of both chaos magic and a working jumper, wheel-greasing giant Steven Adams, and an elite defense staffed by long-limbed super-athletes—can trade haymakers with the class of the conference. But we haven’t seen that version of the Thunder much since the All-Star break.
Oklahoma City has remained solid at getting stops, sitting 10th in points allowed per possession since the All-Star break. But that’s a drop-off from the elite form the team had displayed beforehand, when it ranked as the NBA’s third-best defense—the kind of slippage a squad built on its ability to put pressure on opposing offenses just can’t withstand.
Some of OKC’s recent defensive problems have come down to focus. “Just not disciplined stuff,” Adams told reporters after Monday’s loss to Miami when asked about how Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, and company rolled up 60 points in the paint. The Thunder are putting opponents on the line more often; only the Grizzlies have a higher opponent free throw rate since the All-Star break. They’re forcing fewer mistakes, going from no. 1 in the league in opponent turnover rate to outside the top 10 over the last 14 games.
They’ve also been notably less effective at getting back in transition. The Thunder rank 19th over the last month in points allowed per possession after the other team secures a defensive rebound. Before the All-Star break, they ranked second in the league. Allowing the opposition to get off to the races after a missed shot becomes an even bigger problem when you are missing, like, a ton of shots.
Oklahoma City is dead last in the league in offensive efficiency since the All-Star break, according to Cleaning the Glass, which strips out garbage-time possessions and end-of-quarter heaves. No team has a worse effective field goal percentage since mid-February; the Thunder rank at or near the basement in finishing at the rim, on midrange looks, and from beyond the 3-point arc.
George, the Thunder’s best and highest-volume marksman, is shooting just 37.8 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from 3-point range over his last 11 games as he deals with a sore right shoulder. Dennis Schröder (35.4 percent from the floor, 26.3 percent from long distance) and swingman Terrance Ferguson (37.2 percent and 28.8 percent, respectively) have struggled mightily, too. It’s reductive, but it’s true: If you can’t shoot, you’re in deep trouble.
When George looked like the best player in the league, Oklahoma City could get by, but now the same troubles that led to its rocky start are coming back to bite them. If neither George nor OKC’s secondary catch-and-shoot targets can consistently knock down long-range looks, the Thunder offense can get awful ugly awfully quickly.
The silver lining here is that we’ve seen the Thunder do all this stuff better. It was only a couple of months ago that Oklahoma City went on an 11-1 tear, with PG and Russ running the show and everybody else pitching in with complementary scoring and defensive work. They absolutely can get back to that level, and, as Adams said Monday, much of what’s ailing them right now is “fixable.” It’s just that there’s a lot to fix, and not a whole lot of time left to do it.
“It’ll happen,” George told reporters after Saturday’s loss to the Warriors. “It’ll happen. We’re not gonna press over it. We’re good in here. Just keep hammering at it, and it’s gonna turn for us.”
If it doesn’t, another disappointing early postseason exit—and a new round of uncomfortable questions about the competitive viability of a Russ-and-PG core—could be in the offing.