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What did we learn from last night's disheartening loss to the Nuggets?
The Thunder dropped a 3rd game to the Nuggets this season, which means several things on the surface. It means that the Nuggets own a potential tie breaker if by chance they catch the Thunder in the standings. It means that the Nuggets are only 3.5 games away from catching them. It means that the Thunder are now a combined 3-6 against teams that they will most likely see in the playoffs (Spurs, Grizzlies, Nuggets).
That's the surface. What about the details? Here are three random musings I have been pondering leading up to the Thunder's latest challenge, facing a surging Grizzlies team.
1. The Thunder's past strategy against Denver does not work anymore.
The Thunder played last night's game the same way that they have played Denver every time over the past 2.5 seasons. They played fast, loose, and with the intention of having a close game at the end where Durant could produce points and the Thunder defense would provide stops.
The only problem was that last night, the game was not that close. To be sure, the Thunder were within two possessions as the game ran down, but really at no point did OKC seem poised to stop the Nuggets from getting into the lane (72 paint points) or off the offensive glass (17 ORB's). The reason why is because they never altered the Nuggets from playing the game they wanted to play.
"It’s easy to fall into that trap. That’s what they do. They get up and down the court. Our game is a little different. We want to run, but we want to run off of our defense. Those guys run off makes, misses of course and turnovers. But they continually run. They pass the ball well and they score a lot in the paint. So we fell into the trap and we couldn’t play that game with them."
Durant admits in effect what we have plainly seen over these three consecutive losses. In the past, the Thunder could play Denver's game and beat the Nuggets at that game. This is not the case anymore. If OKC plays the Nuggets' game, they will lose.
The Thunder now have a collection of games to study that will hopefully have a better understanding that their own competitive advantages over Denver have to be made manifest in order to win games.
2. Kevin Durant looks tired.
Durant has been in a bit of a poor stretch of play over the last month. We can speculate as to the rotation, the shot availability, or whatever we like, but I think at the core of it is that he looks fatigued.
Two years ago, Durant participated in the FIBA World Championships, adding to his workload and reducing his downtime. This additional series of games had a notable effect on how Durant played in the first half of the season. Even at an age of 22, he was still overworked and it wasn't until the middle of the season going onward that he found his sea-legs and took off.
In the same way, Durant was in London for the Summer Olympics, added a lot more game time to his work load, and I believe we are seeing some of the results now. He began the year looking vastly improved from a year ago, with an expanding game that produced a PER that was challenging LeBron James'. However, after the All-Star break Durant (as well as a lot of other Olympians, it might be noted), seems to have hit a wall, and his game has dipped.
On top of Durant's fatigue, Scott Brooks seems to not have altered Durant's workload at all, but instead has increased it. Durant's minutes are up and his responsibilities are up as well. He handles the ball more, spends more energy initiating the offense, and as a result he's been running out of fuel when the end of the game arrives. Furthermore, the fatigue has impacted Durant's overall efficiency, as he has become a turnover machine as of late, recording a staggering 32 TO's in the past 6 games alone.
Unfortunately, Brooks has not adjusted the offensive system in any tangible way other than have Westbrook carry the work load for 3 quarters and hope Durant comes around in the 4th. This scenario is unsustainable. It reminds me of an athlete who injures his knee, tries to come back too early, and then because of over-reliance on his other leg ends up injuring the opposite knee as well.
3. The Thunder offense has regressed.
Earlier in this season I argued, and I stand by it, that perhaps one of the best things that could have happened to Durant the player was to lose James Harden because it would force him to grow as a leader. Over the first half of the season, we were treated to an evolved level of basketball that was incorporating multiple facets of offense that we never saw before: newcomer Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka, and even Nick Collison were all being featured and as a result the Thunder were more dynamic than ever before. Their assist totals jumped, shooting percentages rose to the top of the league, and the team looked ready to challenge the Heat. The loss of Harden was forcing OKC to become a better system.
I'm not sure when it happened exactly, but somewhere along the lines the system changed. While it is not prudent to play the blame game, I think it happened right around the time Durant's game started to slip. The team was faced with two paths. They could either progress or regress. Progression would mean that Durant would step back, Westbrook would step back, and other guys like Martin and Ibaka would have to step up. It might mean more losses in the immediate term, but in the long term it would provide better balance and confidence. You can look to San Antonio for how this is done. They lose, and sometimes intentionally lose, key players for games with the purpose to make the other players learn how to deal with competition. Their offensive balance is seamless, just like Denver's.
Regression would mean that Durant would do what he can, Westbrook would do more, and the process would be sidetracked. Westbrook is just like Kobe Bryant in this sense - if you don't bring the hustle that he does every game, he isn't going to wait for you. That brings a lot of good, but it brings some bad as well. The bad is what we saw last night, when OKC had no substitute scoring that could maintain the blistering pace which OKC willingly ceded to Denver.
The Thunder is a different team in 2013. They need to remember this. They need to play differently. Last year's formula is on the scrap heap; if OKC is to move beyond, their new identity is what will take them.