In his post-game interview after the close call in LA, Kevin Durant told Lesley McCaslin that the Thunder needed a game like that to wake them back up. He is right, ball movement has been the focus this season and the Thunder are a much more problematic riddle for opposing defenses to solve when the team is sharing the ball along with the scoring wealth.
The starting rotation has, for the most part, bought into the concept of sharing the ball, and now Donovan and his staff are shifting their attention to the bench. A bench that has been the Thunder's Achilles' heel for much of the season.
Moving Cameron Payne into the backup point guard slot was the most visible change and for the most part the results have been "very, very" positive. The Maestro still has a lot of work to do on the defensive end and it is important to remember that he is a rookie and will make mistakes accordingly, but after months of watching D.J. Augustin struggle to get results, the move has been like a breath of fresh air for the fans and, more importantly, Payne's comrades off the bench.
The Thunder are 6 and 1 since Payne took over the chore of backing up Russell Westbrook during the second half of the Denver game. To be sure, Payne's success has been against less than stellar NBA competition as the Thunder's last 7 opponents are a combined 101 and 162, or 38% (the Memphis Grizzlies were the only team in that group with a winning record). But that is okay, and even possibly by design. Could there have been a better time to give Payne a crash course in running the second unit than the nine game stretch between the Bulls on December 25th and the Dallas Mavericks on January 13th? I doubt it.
Payne needs time to get his game up to speed and the other members of the team need a getting to know you period. One of Payne's teammates that seems to be responding well to the change is Dion Waiters, who has reduced his trips to Waiters' Island recently and has recorded 15 assists in the last 5 games. A look at his game logs reveals something else:
Prior to this block of ten games, Waiters was a consistent 25 to 35 minute per game player. Good game or bad game, it didn't matter. Now we are seeing a trend. When Dion is attacking and distributing and making the team better, his minutes are as before, but starting with the Bulls game, we see the first significant drop in his minutes in a competitive game. Dion is taking the class right along with Cameron.
A play against Charlotte stands out. Dion had been having his way with Jeremy Lamb on the perimeter and getting to the middle of the Hornets' defense at will. Then he came down the floor, had yet another one on one pairing against Lamb, and opted for a contested 3 point shot. At the next stoppage in play Donovan brought in Singler and Dion's rotation was over. When Dion returned later in the game, he was better.
Against the Lakers, I saw it again when Waiters drove the lane and opted for the ESPN highlight spinning layup rather than the mundane pocket pass to a wide open Enes Kanter. Donovan called timeout and Waiters 1st half was over. When Waiters returned in the second half, he was better. Not perfect, but better, and recorded the second highest number of assists on the team.
It's very simple. Good Dion plays 25 to 35 minutes a game and helps the team win, bad Dion gets 10 to 15 fewer while sitting on the bench to "think about it" and remember how to help the team win. A tactic Scott Brooks could and should have used with a young Russell Westbrook, especially when he had a solid back up in Eric Maynor to hold down the fort while Russell "thought about it" for a while. Brooks actually did it one time during the Western Conference Finals against Dallas with good results, and by the looks of Dion's assist totals, lately it's proving to be effective again.
What concerns me most about Waiters at this point is the shooting slump he has been in since the Cleveland game. Dion really wanted to play well in that four point Thunder loss, but only hit one of seven attempts. That game was 12 games ago. I mark it as Dion's moment of truth and when he bought in to Donovan's coaching. In the eleven games since that night in Cleveland, Dion has only taken 7.8 shots per game and has averaged 3 assists in the last five games. That is a great showing of maturity and restraint, but Dion needs to let that game go, do what Donovan tells him to do, focus on the things he does well, and his shots will start falling again.
Despite the slump, I still feel Dion has improved and a lot of the credit goes to Cameron Payne. Payne's goal every game is to make his teammates better and so far that has been exactly the case. Finally after four months of seeing our bench get slaughtered every night, the subs are holding their own, and would be even better if Kanter would get back on the defensive improvement track he was on earlier in the season (but that is another story).
With Payne's emergence, things are beginning to come into focus. and the next 40 days are a perfect time to really sand off some rough edges. Payne has had his intro into the league during a soft stretch in the schedule. Dion and the rest of the team seem to be on board with the change, so now is a good time to turn things up a notch and the schedule is accommodating.
Let's take a peek at the next 12 game stretch starting with the home game against the Mavs. The competition quality goes up to 45% with 4 teams currently sporting winning records, a 4 game road trip in the mix, followed by a three game home stand that culminates with a rematch against the Orlando Magic, the team that cast the first rays of light on how much work this Thunder team needed.
Almost sounds like a syllabus for a college course doesn't it? However, procrastination is not an option for the students in this crash course because this analogy even comes complete with a mandatory mid-term exam. That would be a February 6th road match-up against the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors.
Fortunately the mid-term only counts for 1/82 of the Thunder's final grade and it falls just a few games prior to the All Star break, presenting Donovan and his staff an ideal opportunity to evaluate the results from the first 54 games of the season, and prepare for the gauntlet otherwise known as the final 28 games of the regular season.
You got that one right Big John...
The meat of Payne, Dion, and the rest of the team's education immediately follows the All Star break when the Thunder face the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks to kick things off. After a brief respite in a road game against the New Orleans Pelicans that has all the makings of a trap game, the Thunder come home to see how much they have improved since taking the mid-term exam in a home rematch against the Warriors. How's that for a course load immediately following a spring break week in Palm Springs?
....and then the next 23 games get hard.
Three against the Clippers, three against Pops and the Spurs (2 on the road including the season finale, just to add some spice). Two more against our favorite man to hate, Patrick Beverly and the Rockets, and an early quickie review of our February progress on the road with Golden State on March 3rd.
Sprinkled along the way are match-ups with the Celtics, Pistons, Raptors, and Pacers. We all know how well the Thunder has fared against the Eastern Conference this season and what really makes these games extra special is that they are all four played on the road.
The remaining ten teams in the final run to the playoffs are currently winning at a lottery rate of just 35% but 6 of the games are on the road. All and all, 15 of the Thunder's last 23 games are contested away from the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena including 7 of the final 9 games.
That is a brutal 28 game stretch that will either make the Thunder the crustiest team in the NBA going into the playoffs or break them in half.
Driving a thousand head of ornery steers to Belle Fourche may not be looking too bad to Cameron Payne and the rest of the class right about now. I would strongly suggest the Thunder take the Duke's advise and attack the next 40 days with "grit teeth" and leave the "wake up" games where they belong, in the team's wake or there will be a mournful wake in their near future....because gentlemen on February 19th....
"school REALLY begins."
Additional thoughts after the loss to Portland.
In the last 20 games the Thunder have lost 5 times, twice to sub-500 teams in the past 9 days. Both of the latest losses had one very troubling stat in common- the Thunder lost the battle of the boards. In fact, four of the Thunder's last 5 losses have that same old-school stat in common.
The Trailblazers finished this game with a 22-8 second chance point advantage off 20 offensive boards. This game did not come down to one or two possessions or one guy having an off night or what rotations were on the floor. This game came down to who wanted it more.
Durant called the Laker game a wake up game. Well someone needs to pump up the volume on the team's clock radio because this was everyone's loss. Playing well on defense on any given possession means absolutely nothing if the ball doesn't end up in your hands.
Donovan said extended road trips were a good time for team's to bond. If I were Coach D here are the thoughts I would leave my team with tonight:
You're the 3rd best rebounding team in the league and yet you have lost 2 games to sub-500 clubs in 8 days because you were out hustled and out worked on the boards. To be perfectly frank, you are lucky this wasn't your second loss in a row to a below average team, because the truth of the matter is the Lakers, except for a very short stretch of time, out played you Friday night. Here is the bottom line. We can't go out there and do it for you. At the end of the day this is your game, this is your team and it's up to each and every one of you to decide how bad you want it.
Good night Thunder Nation