The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Chicago Bulls on the road, 104-98. In what turned out to largely be a battle of All-Stars, the duo of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler sent Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to their third consecutive defeat after the Thunder started the season 3-0.
The Thunder were led by Durant, who finished with 33 points on 13-29 shooting, with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Westbrook finished with 20 points and 10 assists on the night but did not make a basket in the 4th quarter.
The Bulls were led by Rose, who finished with 29 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds, and Butler, who finished with 26. Oddly enough, once again the Thunder seemed to be the cure for a struggling All-Star. Prior to this game, Rose had failed to reach double digit scoring in three games before erupting tonight for his best game of the season. The scenario is similar to James Harden, who prior to his 37 point night was shooting under 25% on the year.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
If there is such a thing, this game feels like a 'system loss.' As in, it wasn't so much that the Thunder played badly; they shot a better percentage, rebounded nearly equally well, and only turn the ball over 9 times. It was more that they weren't doing anything particularly well, well enough to defeat a Bulls team that is also finding its way under a rookie coach in Fred Hoiberg.
The 4th quarter is a great microcosm for the Thunder's season so far. Offensively, they found something that was working - the pick and roll involving Enes Kanter. Whether it was Durant or Westbrook running the PnR, they were producing offense with Kanter as the roll man. Color man Charles Barkley honed in on this particularly well - the Bulls could not switch this PnR set-up, which meant that OKC would always be in an advantaged situation. However, for every time the play worked, OKC would then go to some other format, such as posting up Durant or Westbrook, neither of which worked with great effectiveness.
On the other end, the defense alternated between having a cohesive strategy, which led to a number of long contested jumpers, but also allowed strange switching situations where Westbrook frequently found himself guarding a big man like Pau Gasol. This unsustainable situation eventually lost them the game, because either Gasol was powering over Westbrook for baskets, or Kanter was left on an island trying to stay in front of Rose, who buried jumper after jumper in the 4th.
Aside from the 4th, the lingering problematic defensive breakdown is that OKC still doesn't seem to know what to do when players go baseline. The defensive guy on the ball seems to frequently direct the ball to the baseline expecting help, but the help isn't there. Again, system breakdowns.
In sum, the play wasn't bad, at least not on the scale of the endings against the Rockets or Raptors, but the systemic problems that were causing the breakdowns never got corrected, which is primarily on coach Billy Donovan's shoulders.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
You could argue that the main reason that the Thunder lost was because Rose hit a few more jumpers than Durant did, and you wouldn't even be wrong necessarily. But two functional areas strike me the most.
1. Durant's playmaking
Durant by all looks is healthy, and for that we should be thankful. But his game isn't all the way back, and that is causing problems, especially late in games. Even at KD's best in the 2014 MVP season, there are still some basic realities that Durant has to deal with - he's a very tall guy, and when he dribbles, the ball has to travel a long distance from hand to floor. This makes him particularly susceptible to smaller guys like Butler disrupting his play, both on drives and in post ups.
Along with that, playmaking is above all else a matter of understanding space and timing. Right now, Durant's playmaking timing is a little bit off, so he either holds the ball too long or over-dribbles. With KD getting his game reacclimated, perhaps the worst thing Donovan could ask him to do is to stand still with the ball. That doesn't play to any of his strengths right now. Durant is at his best when he receives the ball and immediately shoots or takes a few quick dribbles and gets rid of the ball. Any time a defense can close on KD, his physical advantages disappear, and the Bulls used this knowledge to disrupt KD just enough so that he didn't turn in his normally efficient offensive performance.
2. Three point offense
Well...there isn't one. And that's a problem.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone; you cannot be an elite team in today's NBA without a) dedicated 3-point shooters; and b) an offensive system that takes advantage of them. This isn't even new; it stretches back to the 2012 Finals where Miami had more 3-point shooters than OKC did, and that largely proved to be the difference. Every subsequent season underscores it more and more, culminated by the Warriors and Stephen Curry embracing the 25-foot pull-up because it is a legitimate part of their transition offense. While other teams like the Spurs, Clippers, and Cavaliers are not as...ahem...cavalier, there is a reason why these teams are the favorites this season, and understanding how to create good 3-point opportunities is what separates a true contender from a team like the Grizzlies. Memphis will always be good, but they will never be able to crack into that upper echelon of elite teams without overhauling their perimeter game.
And so it is, at least today, with the Thunder. To be sure, they're shooting a respectable 39.3% as a team from long range, but this number belies how weak they are performing as an offensive concept (they only took 13 tonight, 6 of them by Durant). Without the offense looking to set up open shots beyond the arc, the limited offensive space they see today is going to dwindle to nothing by next spring because defenses will know that there are no 'floppy punch hammer' plays that the Thunder are waiting to spring on an unsuspecting defense.
In other words, if you wanted to condense these previous two paragraphs, I'm sure you already are familiar with the abstract: Anthony Morrow.
Thunder Wonder: Durant, 33 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 17 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Anthony Morrow, 5 minutes and a whole lot of zeros
Thunder Plunderer: Derrick Rose, 29 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds
Next game: vs Phoenix Suns at 6PM CDT on 11/8