How and why the Oklahoma City Thunder devolve into a horror show in the clutch
DENVER — Three basketball stars brought together to rewrite the narratives of their careers dressed in the stalls of a hockey locker room Friday night, a silence hanging between them as annoyance had turned to frustration, which had turned to resolution. Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony donned their designer clothes after another Oklahoma City Thunder loss, another close loss, this time to the Denver Nuggets, and as they did they said nothing to each other, despite their lockers being five feet from one another in a corner of the room.
The Norman Transcript reported after the game that the team had held a closed door meeting, and when the locker room opened, whatever words had been said lingered. Maybe the “OK3” weren’t talking because they didn’t need to. It was clear they’d had enough of what had put them in this position. There was no lingering animosity — if anything the Thunder’s set of All-Star leaders seemed as if there was no need for polite banter. They know the deal.
OKC had been forced to use the Colorado Avalanche’s visitors locker room after a Pepsi Center maintenance technician had knocked open a sprinkler last week before a Jay-Z concert. The visitors’ basketball locker room was soggy and still under construction. I will spare you the obvious allusion to the Thunder’s predicament being analogous.
The loss dropped the Thunder to 4-7 for the season and, more alarmingly, 1-6 in games within five points in the final five minutes, the NBA‘s “clutch time.” Only Dallas has a worse record this season in such situations. The Thunder, now 6-7, have good reason to be frustrated with his outcome. It’s one thing when you’re losing game because you’re bad; the Thunder definitively are not. They have the third-best net point differential per 100 possessions in the league, which is often a better indicator of team strength than record. OKC is tied for the 10th best win percentage in the West, but Basketball Reference’s SRS metric which weighs performance vs. strength of schedule has them as the third-best team in the conference.
They are a much better team than their record — ensuing victories against the Clippers and Mavs helped that — but those losses are the kind that can sink you. The Thunder were 26-16 in games decided within five points in the final five minutes last year — an astonishing 12-7 in games decided by three points or less. Being in that many close games is like swimming with sharks. That differential boosted them to the sixth seed last season. In the same way, these struggles could cost them come April, especially if they don’t turn them around.
On paper, the problems seem obvious. The Thunder’s offense is stagnant and repulsive, predictable and designed to generate the shots that opposing defenses want to allow. But there’s a context to how they’ve gotten to this point, to why this team has faced so many problems closing games. Oklahoma City took a pair of blowouts over the weekend to improve to 6-7, but the concerns over their close-game issues remain.
Here’s a road map to how the Thunder have been silenced in the clutch.
How They Get There: The Tide Turn
The Thunder have the third-best net rating in the league in the first half of their games. They have outscored opponents by 62 points in the first two quarters; held an 18-point lead vs. Boston and a two-point lead vs. the Nuggets; and were tied in their second game vs. Minnesota.
In the third quarter, however, they fall to pieces.
In losses, it’s even more stark.
Their defense is monstrous as OKC builds its lead, but then, something happens and the game turns. This is the key thing: Oklahoma City has been unable to respond when momentum shifts this season.
“The key is sustaining the work we’re able to put in the beginning of the game,” Anthony said after the loss to Denver. “I think we’re coming out the gate playing extremely well, and putting ourselves in pretty good positions after that first quarter, and then once a team comes back and makes a push, they get momentum and then it’s like we’re fighting an uphill battle at that point.”
“We jump out and that second wave from our opponent changes the game in some way,” George said. “And we don’t match that. We fall behind. First quarter’s a blowout and it looks like we’re going to handle a team and then they make an adjustment and we don’t match that adjustment. I think it’s on us, it’s not on the coaches, it’s on us.”
That’s a telling quote from George. The Thunder don’t handle teams. And when that momentum turns, it turns hard. Checking out the game flows from OKC, the evidence is all over like a crime scene. Minnesota goes on a 7-2 run and an 8-0 run in the third quarter. Portland goes on a 12-1 run. Denver went on runs of 6-0 and 9-2 in the third. And in the worst example, in the Boston meltdown, they surrendered a 22-7 run in the third.
This is what lays the groundwork for the meltdown. The best way to make sure you don’t find yourself in dicey coin-flip games is to beat the team by double-digits.
The Offense: So Close And Yet So Far
The Thunder’s offense gets called out a lot for their crunch-time failures, but here’s the thing…
It’s been fine. They’re 12th in offensive rating in the third quarter, scoring 110 points per 100 possessions. Their fourth-quarter offensive efficiency is the highest they have of the four quarters. They score fine on paper. So what does the eye test tell us?
Westbrook has shot 10-of-16 coming out of the pick and roll in crunch time. So much of it comes down to something that goes back all the way to the start of his career. His first few years in the league, Westbrook struggled with his jumper. He had the insane athleticism, but teams would just go under the screen. So Westbrook worked relentlessly and developed one particular shot, a simple, reliable move: two dribbles off the screen and into a pull-up jumper.
That shot is money. It even works from 3-point range, not Westbrook’s strength.
However, Westbrook often gets caught up in hero shots, hero shots that fell last year when he was NBA MVP. This is where it gets complicated. Part of the deal with Westbrook is accepting you are going to have bad shots in there. That is inextricable from his basketball DNA. You take the bad with the good. But the value of having two other All-Stars should be most obvious in those crucial possessions.
“I think we get great looks,” George said. “What it comes down to is, teams switch and we take advantage of whatever the mismatch is. Tonight we had a lot of switches on Russ, we’re going to take advantage of the mismatch. But as I’ve been saying, it’s on us not to spectate. We have to get some movement, to create some confusion and give the guy with the ball a chance to make a play.”
Except, here’s Westbrook not getting the switch and still firing a shot over Will Barton:
Here’s Westbrook not getting the switch, facing a double-team from two great defenders, then dribbling back so that Marcus Smart can contest it even more:
On all those places, you’ll notice the Thunder standing around, not moving the way George talks about. That has to change.
Anthony has a pretty basic problem. He works himself into worse shots than he has to. This is the least surprising element of all, given that assessment could also be called “his entire career.” Melo is one of the truly best isolation players in NBA history, but those shots are inherently always going to be worse value.
The Thunder run a lot of pick-and-rolls, and Anthony somehow ends up trying to score on tougher matchups whether he’s on ball or off. Watch this play as he finds a way to shed Taj Gibson, only to isolate himself for a fadeaway jumper vs. the much-taller Karl-Anthony Towns:
Towns is a worse defender than Gibson, but Melo’s not taking him off the dribble or losing him off-ball. He’s trying to score over him. Meanwhile, all four of the other Thunder players are standing around not moving, not forcing anything.
“Who we are as players and being comfortable in those situations,” Anthony said Thursday. “It puts you in those situations when teams switch. You have a big on a guard like Russell, or a big on a guard like PG. We have an opportunity to be in that situation and make a play for themselves or for someone else. As long as we get the ball hopping from side to side, movement, bodies moving, if we get put in that situation, guys feel very comfortable being in that situation. “`
But there are times when OKC does move, and get all three guys moving, and good things happen, like this Anthony 3-pointer that he misses:
That’s a high-percentage look most of the time. That’s “Olympic Melo.” Here, Melo makes a great read to find George separating. The off-ball screen is a little off to clear George; that will improve with time, and he misses it, but that’s a shot George is terrific at:
OKC should run a lot more Melo screens for George. Here, Melo stays high after the screen. The Thunder get a wide open corner 3 … from Andre Roberson. Of all possible outcomes beyond a Steven Adams blind half-court hook shot, Denver will take that Roberson 3. But notice what happens if Melo had popped to the corner:
There’s good stuff in OKC. This is a crucial point: they’ve scored well in clutch time… and they should get better. There’s a lot of reason for optimism here.
Defense: Identity Crisis
Hoo, boy, is there a lot that goes wrong for them on the other end. It’s bizarre, given how good the Thunder defense is the rest of the time, and it’s another reason why these early-season struggles will probably correct itself.
The Thunder have given up 21 points on 14 spot-up shots in the clutch, good for a 1.5 points per possession mark. On the season, they have allowed the 4th fewest points per possession mark league-wide on those shots, allowing 0.863 points per possession. In other words, their spot-up defense goes to absolute trash at these moments.
In crunch time, little things can hurt you. On both of the following possessions, Westbrook sinks to “tag” the roll man. You’re basically trying to stop the dump-off pass for a dunk. But look where the Thunder are. Jerami Grant is in the middle, he can contest against Nurkic, way more than Westbrook can. Paul George has Grant’s man. If Damian Lillard makes the pass to the opposite corner? That’s the pain of pick-and-roll. It’s tough, but it is what it is. Instead, Lillard passes high and finds a much better shooter in C.J. McCollum.
Same deal here. Grant’s there to contest on Jusuf Nurkic, who isn’t exactly nimble. But he is a good enough passer to find McCollum in the corner.
The Boston game skewed a lot of OKC’s crunch-time stats because, honestly, the Celtics were flawless. Smart beats Westbrook in isolation here, which isn’t that bad of a thing; almost no one can contain guards off the dribble in today’s NBA with the athleticism that exists. Adams is there to contest, and as a result, Al Horford is open in the corner.
Horford is 6-for-7 from the corners this season, 2-for-2 from that right one. Yes, it’s a high quality shot, and there are other things OKC could have done to prevent it, but sometimes, it’s just good offense.
And as you’d expect, sometimes insane things happen in these moments no matter what you do:
The Lesson: Tightening Bolts, Not Reassembly
The Thunder’s woes basically come down to a different problem on a different night:
- The two painful Timberwolves losses: Sometimes weird stuff happens, then bad shot selection.
- The Blazers loss: They allowed the wrong shots to the wrong guys.
- The Celtics loss: Everything that could possibly go wrong, did, and Kyrie Irving and Horford were amazing.
- The Kings loss: When it rains, it pours.
- The Nuggets loss: Poor shot selection and some crazy sequences buried them.
A lot of this genuinely was out of the Thunder’s control… but they also allowed fate to take the wheel. OKC had leads in most of these games; they had chances to win. Billy Donovan said this week that he didn’t feel these were coin flip games.
“We’ve made some comebacks in situations. Obviously the game against Boston we didn’t play well in the second half. In Minnesota we were trailing most of the game. For us, we’re very optimistic that there are things number wise that we can figure out.”
He’s right. Oklahoma City is 2nd in point differential in losses. When they win, they win solid, and when they lose, they lose small. The Thunder aren’t lost in the darkness, they’ve just been unable to find the flashlight at times. Over the weekend, they rattled off dominant performances vs. the Clippers and Mavericks, with Paul George taking a bigger role and scoring 79 points across the two games on 44 shots.
Yes, there are things OKC needs to improve to learn how to win close games with this group, but the easiest solution, one that they have the talent to execute? It’s a lesson that their rival in Houston, another team not particularly great in the clutch, has mastered as well: Be up by so much it’s not an issue in the first place.
Otherwise, the Thunder risk a great season being dragged down as if by a monster from below.