The Oklahoma City Thunder got blown out on the road by the Sacramento Kings, 104-83. In a game that was very much a redux of OKC's embarrassing loss on Monday to the Warriors, the Thunder started badly and ended worse. In a game where the team should have been aware that a win would have potentially allowed them to move a half-game ahead of the Pelicans as well as keep pace with the 8th seed Phoenix Suns, the Thunder played with minimal focus, energy, or purpose and the game was for intents and purposes over by the end of the 3rd quarter.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who finished with 24 points and 9 rebounds, but zero assists. Dion Waiters, who was acquired in a trade prior to the game vs the Warriors, finished with 4 points on 1-9 shooting.
The Kings were led by DeMarcus Cousins, who despite a poor shooting night finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
If you've been reading this space for a while and are familiar with my recaps, you may recall that I have a process that I try to adhere to, regardless of a win or loss (or worse). I set up my template, step away from the computer, and have a drink. Usually bourbon, sometimes scotch, but usually nice and neat to both clarify as well as soften the perspective. Tonight was no different, because even such a debacle, preceded by a different debacle, requires perspective. So I poured myself some fine Macallan 12 year, sat down to type, thought for a moment, and...
...Realized my glass was already empty.
So, just so you know, I'm writing the rest of this recap nursing a second glass of Bulleit rye while watching an episode of "The Americans." Just to bring up my mood a bit before I try to write this.
How do you write about something you don't even want to think about? I've been watching Thunder games for a long time, and chances are, you have too, and you've seen a number of bad losses over the years. How do we put this one into context? The easiest way is that we know that the Thunder tend to take a month or two off each season where they just kind of coast along to a .500 record biding their time for the playoffs to start. They'll drop the random game to the Kings or Magic or even the previously awful (rather than presently mediocre) Cavaliers. It happens. It's a long season, and some games just kind of get lost in the grind. This game would normally fall within that type of category. The Thunder played listless, the Kings came out with good energy, purpose, and defensive focus, and OKC never got themselves going to give themselves a chance to win.
Sound about right?
What happened tonight was similar in a sense, but radically different in one particular regard. In the past, these types of losses would come in the midst of the Thunder leading the entire Western Conference with a record like 45-10 with ample games to play with, without risk. The obvious difference now is that the Thunder, complete as they are now, essentially began the season in a 10 game hole and are now sitting on 19 losses in early January. This means that, conservatively, OKC has only about 13 games the entire rest of the season that can result in a loss if they want to still make the playoffs. They still need to maintain the same general winning percentage - about 72% which is very doable, but the problem is that when you no-show two games in a row and have far less margin for error than any other playoff contender in the West AND you by far look like the worst team out of all of them, this team is nearing a crisis point that it has never been accustomed to in its present state.
That kind of threat either galvanizes a team or it resigns them to next season.
Which fate will this team choose? Because that, to me, is a much more important question after tonight than whether or not Dion Waiters looks like a good trade.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
If we must delve into the details of the game, and I suppose we should discuss it since this is technically a recap, I would argue that it doesn't behoove us to really look too closely at individual statistics. To be sure, a team shooting 32.6% collectively with its 2 stars combining 11-39 with 11 turnovers, 9-30 from 3-point range and 24 turnovers is significant, but if you can imagine it, actually hides the ineptitude. It runs much deeper than statistics, but if you're a sucker for punishment, here is what I would look at. Take a browse through the game's play-by-play account and look at one particular detail. Count up the number of times that the Thunder had the ball and a shot went up with more than 12 seconds left on the shot clock.
To be sure, a lot of these numbers bely what happened; transition baskets obscure the truth, offensive rebounds and put-backs skew the data, etc. However, for the most part the Thunder have become a very bad team at utilizing the full breadth of their considerable talent. Think about it - how many other teams can reasonably boast the collective talent level of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka? The Warriors, maybe? It is an absurd level of offensive firepower. And every time the Thunder fly down the court in a half court set and fire up a shot with more than 12 seconds left on the shot clock, they waste it. I've made this argument plenty of times before and I still stand by it. In tonight's case, we're talking about the Kings, and bless their hearts, they've endured some crap this year, and they played hard tonight. Not always good, not always competent, but hard. They are also a bad defensive team, and that should be one of the biggest assets a team like the Thunder should have against them. Yet every time they fly up the court and don't even make a single pass before a semi-open jumper is loosed, they give back that asset. Bad defensive teams aren't bad because they can't defend at the point of attack. They are bad because they break down after a competent team rolls through the 2nd and 3rd options which yields layups and open corner-3's. The Thunder, with the way they are playing now on offense, are turning bad defensive teams into good ones, and it puts so much stress on their defense (which, I may note, is not as bad as the numbers bear out) that these past two losses are inevitable.
All through this game I was trying to think of the apt descriptor to what I'm seeing now. Not just tonight, but for most of this season. And it isn't that OKC is playing badly. It is that they are playing as a bad team would play. The way the Kings, strong on young talent but short on purpose, have played in the past. And bad teams get beat most of the time and then wonder why.
It's not too late. But the crisis point is not far off.
My glass is empty.
I'm not picking on Waiters here, because he's the new guy who doesn't yet know much of anything about the Thunder's M.O. (and maybe he's just following others' example) but this little clip is the de facto Thunder offense right now. Replace Waiters with Durant, Westbrook, or Jackson, and this is the same shot we're seeing 30-40 times per game.
Gif via Grantland
Post game, Durant said,
“We moved the basketball, found good shots, just couldn't hit them tonight."
Respectfully, no. If in a normal play it takes 8 seconds to get engaged (OKC has never been quick with offensive engagement) and then a shot goes up in the next 4-5 seconds, you haven't even had time to effectively move the ball. Instead, at best it is one pass, one screen, one shot. At worst, it is one guy dribbling around and then firing away. Even bad defensive teams have no trouble stopping this.
Thunder Wonder: None
Thunder Down Under: None
Thunder Blunder: All
Thunder Plunderer: DeMarcus Cousins, 23 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists
Next game: vs Utah Jazz on Friday, Jan. 9th at 7PM CDT