- Another game, another late breakdown caused the Thunder to drop yet another game that it appeared to have in control.
Any union of multiple star players on the same team should come with an allowance for clumsy play. The Thunder, in adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to a core led by Russell Westbrook, are no exception. Yet even if we grant that forgiving premise, there are still some failures worth noting—some results so unworthy of the talent involved as to stand out amid all the growing pains. Oklahoma City experienced just such a blow Friday night in a 104-101 loss to San Antonio.
At issue is not that the Thunder lost to the Spurs, a Western Conference rival that has survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker to post a superior record. It’s that Oklahoma City exhibited such overt dominance in the first half before losing control of the game completely. One would imagine that after building a 23-point lead in just 14 minutes of play, a team with the collective ability of the Thunder would have no problem making the periodic runs and basic maintenance necessary to close out a win. They would, apparently, be wrong.
An unfortunate trademark of OKC’s star trio thus far is their capacity to make the simple seem difficult. Boy did they. A baffling number of Westbrook’s drives ended in rolls off the rim. Isolation followed isolation. Entire quarters seemed to come and go without anything in the way of offensive momentum. There are good passers on this Thunder team, but no consistent understanding of how to best move the ball under pressure. As a result, it sits with George or Anthony or Westbrook as the shot clock dwindles away, with too many possessions reliant on a drifting, off-balance shot of some kind or another. Those stars can hit those shots, but the ones on good teams seldom have to.
This was still very nearly a Thunder win because Westbrook’s pick-and-rolls with Steven Adams remain ferocious; because Anthony can manufacture a reasonable shot against most any defender and because George can make defensive plays that very few in the league can. The difference was a bounce here, or an inch there—like when Anthony toed the line on a potential game-tying jumper:
The point is that the verdict never should have been so close as to be in doubt in the first place. Oklahoma City has the second-best defense in the league overall, but their performance on that end tends to deteriorate. How does a team with this kind of length and athleticism lose track of so many shooters? How does the top turnover-forcing defense in the league let the perimeter go limp for an entire half? The Thunder have showcased what a potent two-way team they can be and then promptly pulled out the rug from under themselves. No one should be terribly surprised if the Thunder wind up as one of the better teams in the conference because their personnel certainly allows for it. What’s keeping them is a shallow grasp of how and why the pieces fit—the kind that might work initially, but turns up empty when the team is forced to dig deeper.