The Oklahoma City Thunder are still struggling to find a way to secure a playoff spot. They've lost Kevin Durant once again due to a right ankle sprain against the Warriors. In additional to that, OKC has lost two straight games and overall lost 3 of their last 4 games.
The Thunder's situation is starting to get concerning as they are arguably an elite team and are expected to secure a playoffs spot by the end of 2014. Apparently, all what's happening is due to the absence of Durant but in fact it's not. Russell Westbrook is already playing better than Durant, he's playing at a marvelous level and is being involved in the MVP discussions. Therefore, the issue isn't really a matter of a lack of offensive production.
If we take a look at these four games, you will be able to notice that the Thunder didn't really need Durant in order to come out victorious.
Thunder 109 versus 114 Warriors
This is the game where Durant sustained an ankle right sprain while trying to attack the paint. However, Durant played for 18 minutes in that game. He finished with 30 points on 10-13 shooting and 5/6 from the 3-point line. Yet, the Warriors were in the lead by the end of the first half. Indeed, the outcome of the game would've been different if Durant remained available throughout the entire game. Unfortunately that was not possible for certain precautions for Durant's foot.
Despite that, Russell Westbrook lifted his team as he finished with 33 points, 3 rebounds, and 8 assists. He gave the Thunder a 105-104 lead with three minutes left in the last quarter.
Sadly, the Thunder couldn't hold on in the game, which easily permitted the Warriors to capitalize that disability and nail the win with a 5 points lead.
Thunder 104 versus 103 Lakers
The Thunder won the following game; all credit is delivered to Andre Roberson who prevented Kobe Bryant's last second shot.
On that game, Bryant was already struggling as he finished with 9 points. The Thunder didn't really need Durant to win the game as Westbrook provided the team with all the offensive support finishing with 31 points, 5 rebounds, and 10 assists. Where as, all what OKC needed was to simply hold on in the last minutes of the fourth quarter on the defensive end especially, to win the game. Its quiet surprising that they've struggled in order to win that game.
Pelicans 101 - 99 Thunder
Another loss for the Thunder against the Pelicans. Four OKC players finished scoring in double digits. The Thunder had a 5 points lead by the end of the third quarter.
Moving on to the fourth quarter, the Pelicans had the ability to slightly take control of the game in the fourth quarter but the Thunder resisted that. However, at some point, the Pelicans were able to come back, but Westbrook tied the game 99-99 with 3 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Furthermore, with 2:58 minutes remaining, Anthony Davis scored a bucket through a dunk. Since then, the Thunder were unable to score a single bucket as the Pelicans came out victorious with a two points lead.
Blazers 115 versus 111 Thunder
The Thunder really had a huge opportunity to win this game as they had a 10 points lead with 1:32 minutes to play. Instead of slowing down the tempo, tightening their defense, playing on the 24 seconds shot clock, and focusing on the Blazers star players. The opposing team easily cleared a 10 points deficit through deep shots made by Lillard.
The Thunder had one last chance to prevent Lillard's last second shot, but they failed to prevent it although they knew how where the Blazers going to finish that play. OKC lost their contact on Lillard and he was able to tie the game that sent it to overtime. The Thunder couldn't hang on in the game and they got defeated.
As you can see, the Thunder isn't struggling from the absence of Durant. They actually do have a weak point, which is simply an inability to close out games well. The Thunder lost all the above games with very close deficits. At one point, they had the lead in the last significant minutes of these games. In those last minutes, their defensive performance begins to scramble downwardly. As a result of that, the opponents can easily comeback in the game and nail the victory.
In last year's playoffs, the Thunder played the Grizzlies. It was a dramatic series filled with overtime sessions. We witnessed the Thunder achieving comebacks in the last minutes of game, but once the overtime session arrived, the Thunder failed to hold onto the game.
Basically, the Thunder aren't lacking execution in fourth quarters, but at some point with few minutes left to play. They are usually be in a position where they don't have to produce more offensive production in order to win. All what they need to do is to step up on the defensive end and they'll be able to close out games very well, as their solid defense will create them numerous offensive chances.
The Thunder must get rid of the following weak point, or it will have an impact on them in terms of their ability to win a championship this year. How can OKC close out games well? A huge part of that, as I said earlier, is to step up on the defensive end. Moreover, Russell Westbrook should get the key players involved in the offense more often, especially if the Thunder where in a position where they are down by few points. Forcing shots isn't going to really serve the Thunder any good momentums. Nevertheless, coach Scott Brooks is also obliged to be able to determine the most suitable line up in the last minutes of the game that would be stable in both offensive and defensive ends and is capable of closing out games well. He's also obliged to get the squad used to run on proper offensive systems and formations instead of running one-on-one isolation plays because such plays don't often function well in closing out a game.