So, the Thunder scored 89 points last night, which is their lowest total this season in a victory. In fact, to find a game where the Thunder scored less than that in a victory, you'd have to look back to January 21st, 2012, when the Thunder defeated the New Jersey Nets, 84-74.
Obviously, such a statistical outlier has some pretty strong reasons behind it. And for most of us, the reasons behind that decline are plain as day....
- Russell Westbrook is a huge part of triggering this team's pace and creating shots.
- The Charlotte Bobcats are a really ugly, defense-first basketball team.
These points are obvious, and most people generally wouldn't argue with them. We all know how valuable Westbrook is to this team, and most of us know how the Bobcats like to play ball. But there is one bullet point that I think a lot of people would like to throw out there in addition to the two above, and I don't think that it holds nearly as much merit:
- The Thunder's ball movement really suffers without Russell Westbrook.
This statement is totally and completely wrong. In fact, I'd argue that the Thunder actually move the ball more without Russell Westbrook, simply because he's not there to create shots. Westbrook is one heck of an assist man and definitely does a great job creating opportunities for others. That being said, he thrives in a simple offense with few moving parts and few passes. With Reggie Jackson completely nixed by Kemba Walker, the Thunder had no explosive shot creating threat other than Kevin Durant, and had to frequently move the ball around for open shots.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. To illustrate my point, I'm going to show you the Thunder's offensive plays during the Bobcats' 14-0 third quarter run. That's right, 8 straight plays of empty offensive possessions. You might see this as a bit masochistic, but I guarantee that you'll be surprised as just how good of a shot the Thunder were able to get most of the time.
This is a rather simple play to start things off, but I still like the shot that this play gets. Reggie Jackson sees that Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson are playing ICE, and don't view Perk as an offensive threat. He drives straight at Jefferson, getting Perk as close to the basket as humanly possible. He then dishes to Perk, who takes a relatively uncontested hook. The shot barely rolls out. I know a lot of people are Perk critics, but this was a good shot.
In this play, the Thunder get three attempts at low percentage shots that they turn down. Initially, Reggie Jackson has an open three, but given how he had only hit one shot in five tries so far, he decided to drive the ball and open up an opportunity for KD. The ball comes in too low, and KD knows he could never recover in time for a shot, so he drives a second time and dishes it to Ibaka. Ibaka gets the ball out of rhythm, so he looks to side step and get a better look. Unfortunately, Josh McRoberts is there to take the charge, and the play ends. You might see this as the Thunder being too hesitant, but given how badly Durant and Jackson were shooting up to that point, you have to admire their caution.
Here the Thunder swing the ball from one side to the other, attempting to create a two-man game situation for Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka. Jackson thinks he sees an opening when Kemba Walker slips past him and McRoberts ICEs his drive, but Gerald Henderson does a great job of covering Ibaka's open shot. Ibaka smartly dishes to Sefolosha for a wide open three, but Thabo misses. Excellent ball movement, excellent shot.
Here the Thunder run a basic HORNS play for Reggie Jackson, giving him the option of taking a left or right screen. He takes the right screen, but it's totally ineffective against the defensive glue known as Kemba Walker. He attempts to pass out to Ibaka for a shot, but Ibaka is well-covered. Ibaka backs out and hands it off to Jackson, attempting to set up a basic pick and roll. Meanwhile, the other three Thunder players spread out. Jackson takes the screen, and ends up getting a decent fadeaway attempt against Walker that misses. This play featured serviceable ball movement, but it's an excellent example of how Westbrook might've been able to draw an additional defender and create a shot, either for Ibaka initially or for Sefolosha during the second drive.
Kevin Durant brings the ball up, clearly dissatisfied with the Thunder's performance on the last 4 possessions. He attempts to set up a basic drive into the lane, drawing defenders and getting a pass out to Ibaka. Unfortunately, Kemba Walker is smart enough to realize what Durant was doing, plant his feet, and draw the charge. But this play is yet another example of great ball movement. Had the charge not been called, Serge Ibaka was wide open and only one pass away from a reliable shot.
The Thunder run a basic pick and roll for Reggie Jackson on a side-out play. Again, the pick on Kemba Walker was totally ineffective, and Reggie Jackson runs into a wall. He makes an emergency pass to Perkins, who gets delusions of grandeur and attempts to do too much. Perk's facade of a dribble is quickly read by Cody Zeller, who intercepts the pass to a relatively-open Ibaka. Again, the ball movement is there, and had Perk simply passed it in the first place, that might've turned out to be an Ibaka three.
The Thunder are pretty energized coming into this possession, looking for any kind of easy basket they can possibly get. Reggie Jackson begins the play by refusing Perk's screen and wildly charging into the paint, drawing two defenders. He kicks it out to Ibaka, but he can't handle the wild pass and is forced to pass on the shot and dish it out to Thabo. Thabo sees Reggie Jackson wide open in the paint, so he makes a bullet pass to the aforementioned area. Reggie Jackson blows the wide open layup. Perk miraculously muscles his way to an offensive rebound, and dishes it to a distant KD. KD uses the distance to generate a full head of steam and get a great shot just below the free throw line, but the ball again rolls out. Once more, the Thunder utilize great ball movement, but just come up a little bit short.
On the last play in this parade of nightmares, Kevin Durant runs a disorganized HORNS set. After receiving a Perk screen, he gets ICEd and passes to an open Reggie on the perimeter. Reggie again refuses the shot, and dribbles across the length of the court at about half-speed. He then loses his mind and dishes the ball to a well-guarded Perk, who travels. This play was downright horrible from its' conception, because the Thunder had no clear idea of what they wanted to do in place, and even if they did, there's no way that Kevin Durant should be running HORNS at the point. Still, the effort and communication are clearly there.
Play 9 (Vindication):
On the last play, Sefolosha comes in to save the day. He tries to get a one-on-one post-up situation for Durant, but Durant is immediately double-teamed. Durant re-sets and takes a false screen from Ibaka, but nothing comes of it. He's forced to ignore Ibaka and throw the ball out to Sefolosha, who gets immediately covered by Walker. Sefolosha rather cleverly fakes a pass to Fisher in the corner, sending Walker spiraling and leaving Thabo wide open. Somehow, Sefolosha re-gains his balance and nails the tough three.
- The Thunder's offense needs to become much more organized. This is the main point that I'd like to drive home here. It's clear that the Thunder communicate well with each other, trust each other, and have a strong sense of each other's strengths and weaknesses. But their entire first-team offense is based off of the ideal that Westbrook and Durant are there to dominate their defenders and create shots. Without Westbrook there, half of the responsibility goes to the rest of the team. And, as bad as it is to say, they're not going to be able to do that against the NBA's better defenses. In Westbrook's absence, the first-team offense may have to go to a much stricter system that's designed to create shots through well-designed plays, rather than individual creativity.
- Reggie Jackson is doing the right things, but he's not on Westbrook's level. I don't have much to say about this one, but it's true. RJ had the right idea in mind throughout the entirety of tonight's game, but he's just not as effective at beating the defense as Westbrook is. He might be able to tear through the Patty Millses of this league and can make some spectacular shots at the rim, but when he's forced to rely on his three and fight through double-teams, he can become much quieter or less effective.
- Kemba Walker is an absolute defensive beast. He does not get enough credit for how great he's playing right now. Did a terrific job of fighting through screens, keeping Jackson flustered, and played terrific help defense. Somebody get this guy on the All-Star team!
- The Thunder are going to lose at least one game because they simply can't hit open shots. I hate to say it, but with the types of shots that weren't going down above and the final score tonight, it seems inevitable.
- It might be time to start Derek Fisher at point guard. I'm not saying this because of Jackson's bad performance, or because Fisher has done a great job at anything recently. Rather, I say it because it's really apparent that he can't play point guard. Let me put it this way: Reggie Jackson and Kevin Durant are the Thunder's primary ball handlers. Fisher will get maybe 5-10 possessions while Sefolosha and Lamb grab a couple, but generally Durant and Jackson are going to bring the ball up the floor and set up the play. This means that one of them needs to be on the floor at all times. And if anybody's great at working with the bench, it's Jackson. Of course, Brooks will probably address the problem by simply taking KD out earlier and re-inserting him later, and benching Jackson would be a huge punch to his ego. But by giving Jackson the same role he's had for the past two years, the Thunder might be a lot better off come the All-Star break.
- It might be time to sign a new point guard. The Thunder are $1,127,007 below the Luxury Tax threshold, and according to Larry Coon's CBA FAQ, they can sign any player with 6 years of experience of less without going over. If Derek Fisher can't handle at least some of the point guard duties without experiencing major trouble, getting a player that can grab maybe 8 points and 2 assists a game isn't such a bad idea.
What do you think about the Thunder's offense Post-Westbrook? What changes would you make? Let us know in the comments!