The season doesn’t yet grow late for the Thunder, but with every loss comes a heightened degree of difficulty for playoff qualification. Their latest (and second straight) defeat came on Sunday afternoon, a 108-98 drop to the Cavaliers in front of a national television audience. A wide swath of basketball fans bore witness to a Thunder team that, while now healthy and talented as ever, is quite visibly out of sorts.
This is as serious a cause for concern as you’ll find in Oklahoma City’s playoff case. After this latest loss, the Thunder were 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Suns with some 38 regular season games remaining. It's a reasonable margin to cover for this particular team given its past success. At issue, though, is the state of the Thunder since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s respective returns from injury. Both have been spectacular in a general sense, yet their superstar-caliber play couldn’t lead OKC to anything more than an even split over its last 10 games.
That there is no simple diagnosis for what ails this would-be contender makes its prospects all the more uncertain. The Thunder under Scott Brooks have been a stout, oppressive defensive team for years. Now their on-a-string rotations catch a few more snags than usual and their one-on-one coverage slips more often than we’ve come to expect. On Sunday, those miscues led to open looks for Cavaliers shooters and free throws aplenty for LeBron James. Even relying on a switch-heavy adjustment couldn’t patch up the holes that led to periodic, game-breaking runs for Cleveland.
Case in point: Kevin Love's dagger three-pointer with 3:36 remaining in the fourth quarter. As a prelude to the attempt, James set a ball screen for Kyrie Irving with the intent of drawing a switch. Once done, the ball was reversed to James to operate in isolation against an undersized Westbrook. The Thunder point guard gambled and threw himself at the ball almost immediately, wanting no part of the post-up that would likely come next. James evaded and drove, pulling the necessitated help of Serge Ibaka and making a simple kick-out to Love in the corner. Cleveland led by 12 and would sustain its advantage the rest of the way.
Placing blame for the Thunder’s struggles on its defense alone, though, would be awfully reductive. Their loaded offense shot just 39.4 percent from the field against the Cavaliers, including Westbrook’s 7-for-26 shooting and Dion Waiters’ 5-of-15 day. Both players took shots they shouldn’t have and missed shots they’re expected to make. Yet even Kevin Durant, who scored 32 points on just 23 shots, saw his team outscored by 12 points during his time on the floor. Something is amiss beyond the usual scapegoats, and it’s costing the Thunder dearly in a race where every accrued loss is a burden.
It would seem that this version of the Thunder -- deconstructed in the absence of Durant and Westbrook, reassembled in whatever fashion possible and tweaked through in-season trade -- is not quite congruent with the Western Conference finalist of last season or the top contender of the season before. Some of the areas in which those teams were sharp now appear dull, if not all the time than occasionally enough to raise alarm. Doom and gloom would be misplaced at this point, but Oklahoma City has work to do in redefining itself as the team it expects to be, and time alone may not be a sufficient remedy.
A loss like Sunday’s is worrisome for just this reason. One would think that after having Durant in the lineup for 10 games the Thunder would be shaping into something resembling their usual form. For minutes at a time that was the case Sunday, as it was in OKC’s loss to Atlanta on Friday; the Thunder can be commanding in stretches before drifting slightly out of focus.
That in itself isn’t fatal, as Oklahoma City has long been a team that weathers runs well. But Brooks has to find a way to get more of this team’s best basketball on a nightly basis, the furious, dominant spurts with which no opponent can keep pace. Standing in the way are certain lineup configurations (some born from Brooks' relatively new trend of staggering Durant and Westbrook's minutes), usage imbalances, awkward on-court synergies and some inexplicable lilts in the performance of Oklahoma City’s rotation players.
Many of those factors came into play in the Thunder's loss to the Cavaliers, yet the deficit never grew bigger than a perfectly manageable 13 points. James had a huge day (34 points, seven rebounds, five assists), Love hit more three-pointers (five) than he's had in any game since Nov. 11, Westbrook struggled with his shot and still the Thunder were on the verge of closing the gap. In the macro view of their playoff prospects, there they remain as well.