How the Thunder lost
The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost a crucial late-season bout with the Utah Jazz, 89-94. It was one of the most frustrating losses in recent memory. Even though Russell Westbrook was able to rattle off 20 points in the fourth quarter, a career high, the Thunder still managed to come up short. It wasn't so much because the momentum wasn't in OKC's favor, or even because the Jazz were finding ways to score themselves. Simply put, Quin Snyder told his team to sit on the ball and freeze out the game.
How did the Thunder get in that hole? Well, two reasons. Foul trouble and turnovers. Steven Adams quickly racked up fouls, and couldn't stay in the game. As Adams is OKC's only consistently reliable rim protector, his absence meant a lot of free points for Utah near the basket. Despite shooting an atrocious 38% from the floor overall and 20% from three, the Jazz were still able to register 42 points in the paint. Even when the Thunder packed the paint, they simply couldn't keep the Jazz from exploiting mismatches and getting to the rim. Without Adams in the game, anyway.
Turnovers were another very major issue for the Thunder, though. In the second and third quarters combined, the Thunder had just 3 assists to 13 giveaways. To make matters worse, OKC's primary ballhandler, Westbrook, shot just 2 of 10 during those two periods. As you can imagine, it was some of the ugliest basketball I've ever seen.
Explaining the Turnovers
Early on, the Thunder were able to succeed on offense because they went big with Kanter and Adams. Westbrook ran a pick and roll game all day, and the Jazz just didn't have the personnel to deal with both centers at once. McGary would take over in the late first, running the same pick and roll game with Westbrook. McGary only had to overcome some guy named Jack Cooley to score 8 points in his first 6 minutes, but production is production.
Then, Adams foul trouble ensued. This meant that Utah could stay big while the Thunder couldn't. This left Westbrook one less screen setter on offense, and robbed him of his effectiveness. Exum was able to body up Russ on the perimeter and deny him shots, while Gobert and Booker were able to protect the paint. All that was left was the 4-8 foot range around either baseline, which has been the bane of Westbrook for his entire career.
Other reasons for second and third quarter failure
Normally, you might expect Waiters to pick up a bit of the slack here. But Dion was dealing with a sore foot all night. I was oblivious while watching the game and couldn't tell, but Brooks confirmed as much after the game. As such, Waiters took on a bit more of a passive role over the middle two quarters, only taking two field goal attempts despite 16 minutes of play. Waiters would exit the game with 7:29 to go in the third, and did not return to the floor.
If all of this wasn't enough of a comedy of errors, then you don't want to hear what I have to say next. The Thunder entered the bonus with 6:13 to go in the third quarter. This meant that if the Thunder drew a foul anywhere, they could go to the line. Over the next 13 possessions, under these conditions, the Thunder only drew one foul. It wasn't for lack of trying, at least while Westbrook was in the game over the earlier part of that stretch. But when OKC plays a lineup of Kanter-Novak-Singler-Morrow-Augustin, it's not like drawing a foul is what they're equipped to do.
How Utah sustained on the other end
Utah was able to survive on whatever their pick and roll game managed to produce in the paint and at the line. You might wonder why OKC didn't just pack the paint, and they did to some extent. But the Jazz are good at moving the ball from side to side and picking part OKC's defense. Furthermore, even though Utah doesn't have great shooting, they constantly kept the Thunder on their toes by firing up as many threes as possible. Trey Burke took three, for Pete's sake.
Really though, Utah had 28 points off 23 OKC turnovers. That's nearly a third of their total score. Utah's offense was just a front for their defense to get back on every possession. When the Thunder get 12 points on the break overall and there's no KD or Ibaka to steady the offense, it's really hard for them to win.
Enes Kanter embraces the hate
Besides all of the basketball going on, there was a human interest story at the heart of this game as well. Enes Kanter was making his first return to his former home court, and he wasn't happy about it at all. Before the game, Kanter described his time in Utah as "frustrating" and explained that he didn't enjoy playing basketball while on the Jazz. According to Enes, playing for the Thunder has been "like a dream that you don't want to wake up from."
Kanter's pre-game interview didn't sit well with most Jazz fans. Here's a sampling of some of the most popular comments from SLC Dunk's news article about Kanter's remarks:
"How is anyone defending this guy? He said he missed one thing about Utah, "the mountains". He doesn’t miss teammates, he doesn’t miss the fans, f*** Kanter. He said he didn’t even try every night. Dude deserves ALL the hate he is going to get. Rightfully so." -TheNextGM
"I get why he was frustrated and stuff. We all were during the Corbin era. But he’s an idiot for not recognizing how rapidly things were getting better when Quin came on." -KSearle87
"Sorry, but these remarkably stupid comments are not excusable because "corbs" It’s one thing to say that he had a problem with Corbin, it’s quite another to throw the whole organization under the bus. This is the franchise that Larry, Jerry, John and Karl built and so while I’ve supported Enes up to this point, yeah I have to say that he’s crossed the line. "I will say almost everything. I didn’t bring it every night. Almost everything was a frustration." Is about as damning a comment I’ve heard a professional athlete say. It approaches Mark Jackson level s*** IMO. Enjoy your boos tonight Enes, you’ve more than earned them." -jjrosk
As you can imagine, Kanter was booed incessantly upon his introduction to the game.
Kanter's reaction to the crowd would continue throughout the game. Most notably, Enes clapped at booing fans during the late second quarter when he drew a foul call. Kanter would also show his frustration by registering a technical with 7:29 to go in the third. That incident wasn't crowd-related though, as Kanter was simply frustrated that Westbrook was called for a foul while fighting for the ball with Exum.
When questioned after the game, Brooks expressed his thoughts on Kanter's management of the situation. "I don't like the way he handled it early on, when they introduced him. That's something that will be addressed. We're better than that."
- STEVEN ADAMS. What a whale of a game Funaki had, despite the foul trouble. Obviously Adams' rebounds and presence on defense were critical. But what really stood out to me were the two defensive stands Adams made on critical possessions within the last minute of play. On one play, Adams took Burke on a mismatch and egged him into shooting a three. On another play, Adams rotated to protect the rim against a driving Hayward and expertly defended the shot. Both of these stands were carried out when Adams played with 5 fouls. Adams cool head in such critical situations is going to be absolutely essential down the road.
- Derrick Favors was out tonight, as if we didn't have enough reasons to feel bad about tonight's loss.
- OKC won the rebounding battle, 48-42. The Thunder have outrebounded their opponent in 11 of the past 12 games, with Wednesday's bout with the Spurs being the lone exception.
- Gordon Hayward was terrible all night. He went 1-7 from outside the paint and couldn't take advantage of mismatches. Either his confidence was just destroyed or he was dealing with some sort of injury issue, because he was in all the right spots and OKC's D was pretty uninspiring.
- Dante Exum was just as unimpressive to me tonight as he's always been. But this is the first time I really saw him used in a specific role. It seemed as if he was there exclusively to aggravate Westbrook on defense. Exum committed two silly fouls on Westbrook in the first 3:08 of the game, and was subbed out early. Exum would continue to aggravate Westbrook throughout the third, but was subbed out when the Jazz started reeling in the early fourth. 17 of Westbrook's 20 fourth quarter points were scored with Exum off the floor, so take that for what it's worth.
- Rodney Hood wasn't known for his D coming out of college, and I saw Westbrook try to use range on him more than once. Still, I didn't really see him hurt Utah on that end. Hood did most of his damage during the second quarter, when OKC was committing turnovers and having problems down low.
- Trevor Booker was an all-around utility man for Utah on offense. He used his range to score over the slower Kanter and Adams, but was also good at driving off the weak side. Booker was also a force on the offensive glass and in transition.
- If you watched Jack Cooley and Mitch McGary run side-by-side, you'd be amazed at how similar their strides are. I had never heard of him before tonight, but everything in his DraftExpress profile describes him as Mitch McGary lite. I bet Quin Snyder thought he was reeeeeal clever, matching those two against each other....
- During one play, Dion Waiters got a step on Rodney Hood, had a path to the basket, and then behind the back passed it to Rodney Hood. Yikes, get that foot healed!
- Kanter matching up against Gobert in the post was a joy to watch. Spin moves, post hooks, and footwork abound.
- The Jazz only shot 27% during the fourth quarter, and the Thunder only committed 3 turnovers as a team. Westbrook had no TOs during the fourth himself, despite 9 on the game.
- At the end of the third, Kyle Singler tried to take it coast to coast, only to be stuffed at the rim by Gobert. It was a very rare sign of aggressiveness from a normally completely offensively passive player.
- Perry Jones had two steals tonight. Jones never really gets credit for his active hands, which are especially effective when defending on ball. I still wish we didn't have to play him, though.
- Anthony Morrow just keeps shooting well. A-Mo's shooting 52% overall AND from three since the All-Star break. I have no idea if A-Mo's shooting leads the league, but Kyle Korver's shot 41% from three during the same stretch.
- Westbrook gave the post game interview with a towel over his head.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, whose effort is the stuff of legend.
Thunder Down Under: Enes Kanter, who's honesty and guts have endeared him to OKC fans for life.
Thunder Blunder: Kyle Singler, Perry Jones, and Steve Novak. Those three names should not combine for 44 minutes of PT, 5 shots, and 0 points.
Thunder Plunderer: Rudy Gobert, for the critical offensive rebound and subsequent nailed free throws that sealed the game.
Next Game: At the Phoenix Suns, Sunday, March 29th, 8 PM Central Standard Time.
What did you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!