The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Denver Nuggets, 101-88. In a final score that belies the telling of the tale, OKC fell hard to yet another team that was not above .500, the 4th in the last 5 losses to bear such a mark. The Thunder are now 4-4 since Westbrook was lost for a 2nd time this season.
In what we hoped would be a game where the Thunder would continue to show progress and trust in their defense and bench, neither showed up. The Nuggets finished shooting only 41.1% from the floor, but this number cratered when they only scored 12 points through the final quarter. For most of the game, that number hovered around 50% as Denver had little trouble either getting into the lane or finding open 3-point shots.
The Thunder's offense was mostly/all Kevin Durant, who scored 30 points, but 15 of those came at the FT line. He once again struggled from beyond the arc, shooting only 1-7, which means in the last 2 games Durant has shot 4-20 from 3-point range (The team overall is a mortifying 12-58). Total blame cannot be placed on Durant though, as Reggie Jackson continued his roller-coaster of a season as the starting PG. Jackson scored 13 points on only 5-12 shooting, turning the ball over 4 times.
Denver was led by Ty Lawson, who once again carved up the Thunder defense 16 points, 14 assists, and 7 rebounds. His targets were Randy Foye (24 points, 6-9 from 3-point range) and Evan Fournier (19 points, 4-7 from 3-point range.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
To say that the game was a disappointment does a disservice to the word 'disappointment.' We often use the phrase "worst loss of the season" to describe the last loss the Thunder had, which often feels like the worst loss of the season. This one may not be the worst, but it feels like one of the worst in years because the Thunder played listeless ball and lost in a very meek fashion. It wasn't a loss where they played uninspired and then got beat by a weaker team; rather it was an uninspired game and got beaten handily, the way we'd expect them to beat a team like the Bucks. There was no fight at the end, only a running out of the clock as the deficit ballooned to over 20 points. In fact, you could argue that Scott Brooks' best coaching move of the night was keeping Durant and Serge Ibaka on the bench in the 4th.
As I was watching this disaster unfold, the recurring thought in my mind was to consider how hard it is, really, for a team to have to prepare in order to play well. I'm not talking about practicing hard or anything like that, but to actually have a plan in place prior to the game and then execute it with the full intention that following the plan can lead to the desired result. Over the years, the Thunder have become so good on their natural talent that perhaps they don't really understand how a team like the Bulls or the Hawks or even the Grizzlies have had to prepare and play in order to generate a fraction of the win totals. Now, without Russell Westbrook on the court, the Thunder's abilities are reduced and they are becoming aware of how hard lesser teams have it when they don't have 2 superstars suiting up.
What confuses me the most though is that it needn't be and shouldn't be this way. The Thunder proved in their games against the Rockets, Trail Blazers, Nets, and Celtics that they have a level of defense at their disposal, even without Westbrook, that is good enough to make them competitive in nearly every game. When they have a plan on both ends of the court and execute it, they are still to be feared. However, when they play as if they are simply rolling the ball out and expecting their talent to prevail, it doesn't.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
I would call it 1/2 lack of a plan and 1/2 lack of team energy.
1) No plan
When OKC plays the Nuggets, we know what Denver is going to bring. They're going to get a lot of offensive rebounds, they're going to push the ball, and they're going to score a lot in the paint. Sometimes they will hit 3's. You know this. I know this. Everyone knows it.
And yet it appeared that OKC forgot it, because defensively they acted like they had no plan at all. Ty Lawson is a tough cover, no doubt, so you absolutely have to have a team-oriented plan in place to deal with him. Everyone has to be on board. If they're not, he just caroms back and forth unchecked until he finds open space, which is what he did all night.
On the perimeter, the Thunder were going under screens (Denver hit 14 3's), losing their man on weak-side screens, and in one ridiculous sequence early on, Reggie Jackson actually tried to guard Lawson with his back to him. I saw it. Jackson was guarding him backwards, never bothering to turn around. You can guess how that one turned out.
2) No energy
It's Mile High altitude, yada blah yada. Nobody on the team played more than 28 minutes. Fatigue shouldn't be effecting the team halfway through the 2nd quarter.
Rather, the energy stems from attitude. And for all the headaches it can sometimes cause, Westbrook's attitude is contagious. You can see that he's got a little crazy in him (at least on the court) and if his teammates don't match it, he leaves them behind. Reggie Jackson on the other hand is so laconic that he depends on others to get fired up, be they Durant, Ibaka, Perkins, or Brooks. But it's not coming from him.
Furthermore, as we've noted recently, Jackson is struggling to communicate effectively with his teammates. It was difficult to hear the entire report, but at one point sideline reporter Craig Sager did some actual reporting and relayed that Serge Ibaka was growing ever more frustrated with Jackson's offense. Sager said that Ibaka was exasperated and complaining to Westbrook that he had no idea where he was supposed to be or where he was supposed to go when Jackson was trying to run plays. As a result, Ibaka never got the ball in the spots he likes and shot only 3-11 from the floor.
It has to be difficult when there is that kind of confusion, and confusion can lead to apathy if you're not careful about it. Ibaka is a wonderful talent, but he's only good at the things he's good at. Ibaka is good at things like rebounding, blocking shots, and hitting mid-range jumpers. He is not good at all at other things like dribbling and passing. So for Ibaka, and by extension other role players like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, and Steven Adams, if they can't be put in a position where they can contribute, they're going to play pretty poorly. This fact was reflected by their lethargy and the reality that at an early point in the 4th, the bench had totaled 5 points combined.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Haha, what? Statistics? Surely you must be joking. Take your pick, old chap, and they'll all point you in the right direction.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder as they stand now are a team of 1 superstar in Durant, 1 good starter in Ibaka, and 10 other role players who have to be put in the proper position for them to contribute something meaningful. Put them in a position where they all can perform their roles, you get the Thunder wins over the Rockets and the Celtics.
However, put them in a position where they collectively have to overachieve, you get games like tonight. This team is not yet at a point where they can win games simply by the function of their offensive and defensive discipline. If they bring both, they can win. However, if they expect it to come along side them as a natural byproduct, they are going to struggle.
Saturday brings the Bucks, and hopefully with it a win. However, as we have seen over the last 2 weeks, there are no guarantees in the NBA. Not now.
Thunder Wonder: Andre Roberson, 5 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block in 13 minutes
Thunder Down Under: Thabo Sefolosha, 7 rebounds, 2 steals
Thunder Blunder: everyone else
Thunder Plunderer: Ty Lawson, 16 points, 14 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals
Next game: vs Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 7PM CST