My viewing of last night's game was limited to the second half, so while I did get to see Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and company on the court all at the same time, it was in wind-down mode, so my takeaway is limited to two basic points:
1) Passing is Improved, But Turnovers Still a Problem
One of the understated ways in which great point guards (Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Chris Paul) impact their teams is not simply by passing the ball to the open guy, but also in the way that their passing attitude infects the entire team's mindset. When a player like Kidd walks on the court with four other Mavericks, it quickly becomes apparent that the way in which Kidd thinks about the game is infused into his four teammates. As a result, even when he leaves the court, the passing mentality lingers. The net effect is that you get a game like Dallas had last night. Even though Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki watched the entire game from the bench, the Mavericks team still managed to tally more assists than the fully rostered Thunder (21-17).
The Thunder showed evidence that they have been working on their team passing, as they worked diligently to keep the ball swinging around the court and not settle into one player's hands for too long. They will continue to make strides in this area as the season moves along. Last night though, the feeling I got was that while the Thunder knew they were trying to pass the ball more, there didn't seem to be a final purpose for the passing itself. As a result, it was almost as if the team was riding on a 24 second amusement park ride and they never seemed to know when to hop off.
When you watch Dallas pass the ball, you can actually see quite well how they are going about checking off their options for an open shooter - A, then B, then C, then back to B, etc. With the Thunder though, they still don't seem to have that deliberate purpose, and as a result, they would over-pass the ball and pass up open shots simply because they were in a "pass the ball!" mentality. Westbrook and Eric Maynor will need to continue to work on understanding where an offensive set is supposed to go and then pass the ball until it winds up in the right spot.
2) James Harden is Ruling the 2nd Unit
Late in the game, we got to see a new wrinkle in the Thunder's offensive strategy. Eric Maynor specifically and the Thunder generally seemed very intentional about pushing the ball up quickly and putting the ball in Harden's hands, much in the way we had discussed last week pertaining to Westbrook.
Even when the team was in a basic half-court set, the offense seemed almost obsessed with forcing the ball through Harden's hands, trusting in his play-making ability to generate offense. While the results were spotty at best, I liked the emphasis because I think the team really wants to use Harden in that 4th quarter facilitator role. Harden has proven himself to be a good ball handler and a smart decision-maker, so by running the plays through him, it will allow both Durant and Westbrook to work off the ball and create mis-matches. This strategy is probably going to seem awkward at first (as it was last night) but over time, I think this style can have a devastating effect. Durant is dangerous anywhere on the court, but with the right defensive strategy, he can be bottled up (see: Western Conference Finals). Westbrook though? There isn't a player alive who can stay with him when he's moving off the ball. He is too quick and too strong to be held in check, and I think the team wants to exploit Westbrook's freakish ability to a greater extent. A great way to do it is by allowing Harden to set up Westbrook, rather than the other way around.
All told, I like what each of these items represents for the Thunder. Even though the results last night were spotty at best, I think they're working on the right kinds of things that will make their offense much more dynamic down the stretch. The Thunder know where their struggles persist; these efforts will help exorcise those struggles and push the team to a higher level of performance.