The Thunder welcome the Golden State Warriors to the Chesapeake Arena tonight on Thanksgiving Eve. I think I speak for many in that we thought that this game, circled from the moment the season schedule came out, would be special, a road marker denoting OKC’s progress in going from contender-to-survivor-back to contender, but we know the truth as it is right now. There are many things wrong with the Thunder that need to be sorted out in the upcoming months if they want to be considered a playoff team, let alone a top 3 contending team in the West. As such, tonight’s game will likely not show us anything that we haven’t already learned through the first 16 games of the season.
It’s a combustible situation, is it not? OKC has routinely opened hot, often quickly building double-digit leads within minutes of opening tip-off, only to quickly lose focus both offensively and defensively, surrendering those sizable leads in breathtakingly efficient fashion through a combination of lazy defense, repeated fouling, and impatient shooting. Combine a Thunder team who plays some of their worst ball in the 3rd quarter (post halftime adjustments) with a team that is notorious for burying teams in that pivotal 3rd, and you can probably see how this one is going to play out tonight. Whether or not #35 plays is likely irrelevant, so there isn’t really any point in revisiting those copious historical details either.
What I am most concerned about is that the book is out on how to play the Thunder, and it isn’t Fyodor Dostoyevsky; it’s more like a Maurice Sendak picture book. The monsters aren’t buried in human darkness; they’re romping around in the moonlight waiting for the Thunder to become disinterested, and once that happens, any team...any team...can and will ‘eat them up.’ This is what needs to change more than anything, the clear psychological advantage that every other team is gaining over OKC now that, if the opponent can simply weather the early storm, a win is theirs for the taking.
So let’s set aside a likely outcome and look for ways in which OKC can make some incremental gains that likely won’t impact tonight, but would be a step in the right direction toward becoming a more complete team by the end of 2017. Here is what I’ll be looking out for:
- Defensive rebounding - perhaps nothing more impactful has affected the team this year, going from a superior offensive and defensive rebounding team to one that is in the bottom 3rd of the league and can no longer count on it to help them win games. You can’t aspire to play good defense if you can’t secure defensive rebounds. While Golden State doesn’t even need to be one of the league’s best in this category, if you can’t even take this advantage away from them, their superior shooting becomes impossible to contend with.
- Startling stretches of laziness - When I turned on the Thunder’s game vs the Pelicans, they were winning 29-10. And right at that point, they had a string of giving up 3 wide open shots (2 dunks, 1 three) and showed zero patience on the offensive end (the lead would be completely gone in under 8 minutes). These sequences are happening with regularity in every game where OKC starts off well. It’s as if they collectively say, “hey, we got this!” and go into cruise control. With 3 minutes left in the 1st quarter. Their resolve to keep their heads in the game and not grow complacent is a massive and necessary step to take.
- I personally think the offense will settle itself in 2nd halves where it appears as if OKC struggles the most, but I think it will be derived from the defensive end. OKC has in Paul George and Andre Roberson elite wing defenders, with Steven Adams quarterbacking the defense from the back line. However, they must recognize that the defensive pressure they can apply is perhaps their most deadly attribute, and to surrender it places their sharpest sword at the feet of their foe. But by yielding it, it can transform their offensive focus.
The NBA season is a long journey, so let us hope the Thunder see the opportunity to get a little bit better tonight.
Who do you think will win tonight?
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