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Daily Rumbles: Iso-Ball is a Non-Zero-Sum Game for the Thunder

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When the ball and bodies stop moving, everyone on the Thunder suffers.

Bill Streicher @ USA TODAY Sports

Howdy Thunder Nation!!!

The boys in blue have managed back-to-back road wins after that disastrous loss to the Charlotte Hornets at home on Monday night, but like all the Thunder’s December wins, they were painful to watch.

Obviously, a 6 and 2 start to the month should be deemed a vast improvement over the 4 and 9 debacle that we endured in November, but like Antonio Daniels said in his post-game analysis after the Thunder recent triple overtime win over the Sixers, this team was not built to squeak by middle of the road team. It was put together to beat the élite.

What makes this season so frustrating is not so much the reason for the struggle, but that the reason is so obvious even old hacks like me can see it; lapses in ball movement and passing. Iso- and hero-ball is killing this team and the game against Philly was a perfect microcosm of the Thunder’s entire season.

A Season Story Wrapped up in Five Minutes

In the first 35 minutes of the game the Thunder converted 35 times on 25 assists. In the last 5 minutes of the game and 3 overtime periods, or 20 minutes, the Thunder only accumulated 3 assists and converted only 11 shots, and all of those in overtime, none in the last 5 minutes.

This game should have been over at the end of regulation and not turned into a 3 overtime marathon. With 5 minutes remaining and 35 made shots in the bank, the Thunder held an eleven point lead, never scored again in regulation and gave up an 11 to zip run to close out the game.

In all honesty, the Thunder sealed their regulation fate 2 minutes before that final 5 minute run of futility. After converting on back to back possessions, both on assisted baskets, the Thunder went iso. Even worse, they hit a couple of shots doing it and the hero ball floodgates flew wide open.

I'm just going to say it, iso- and hero-ball are like compulsive gambling with this team. They know they shouldn’t do it, they say they shouldn’t do it, but invariably they slip, hit a few shots and their brains fall out.

Billy Donovan should start a 12-step program, Iso-Ball Anonymous, where the OKC3 must get up and speak and begin with, “Hi, my name is Russell, and I’m an Iso-ballaholic.....”

“Hi Russell.”

For those about to rip me for making light of addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, and all the amazing 12-step programs that have spun off it, don’t. My life has been directly affected by both alcohol and drugs. I fought my own demons so I don’t make fun of compulsive behavior issues, but I do recognize them when I see them and know there is only one sure cure, going cold turkey and doing the work. The Thunder must stop just talking about ball movement and do it, and do it, and do it, and do it.

It would be one thing if the Thunder could turn the iso-ball on and off, but they can’t. It’s like any other addiction, once they let down their guard and take that first 20-foot contested jumper instead of passing the ball it's over.

The last play of regulation against Philadelphia is a perfect example. After watching their eleven point edge dry up like a water puddle in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the Thunder had the ball with 25 seconds remaining in a tie game. The Thunder set up to take the last shot and this clip shows the last 7 seconds:

The ESPN play-by-play announcer calls George’s shot “a great clean look”, but really, was a contested 28 footer the best shot the Thunder could get with 25 seconds to work with?

No, it wasn’t. Look at this breakdown:

As soon as Carmelo Anthony gets the ball, JJ Redick leaves Andre Roberson to set up the double-team. Melo saw Redick coming and could have passed to either the now wide-open Roberson or back to Westbrook. Once Redick fully commits to the double-team, Melo’s options expand to three, again, back to Westbrook, a skip pass to a wide-open Paul George, or a possible lob to Steven Adams. Melo already has 3 defenders on him, Dario Saric, Redick, and the sideline, but instead of getting rid of the ball with enough time to run something, Melo opts to dribble to his left and bring in yet another defender, the baseline.

To his credit, Melo is able to get the ball out of the corner to Paul George with 2.5 seconds remaining. Joel Embiid explodes to the perimeter to contest and had George been looking for anything other than his own shot, he would have seen the 7 foot Embiid coming and hit Steven Adams waiting all by his lonesome for the money ball that never came.

It may look like I am picking on Carmelo Anthony, but I’m really not. For the most part, he played a great game and was the only starter with a positive +/- after the dust settled, but at the moment of truth, the iso-bug bit and what could have been an easy finish in regulation turned into yet another head in hand affair.

Then Non-Zero-Sum Game

From Wikipedia:

In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant's gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Thus, cutting a cake, where taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others, is a zero-sum game if all participants value each unit of cake equally.

In contrast, non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties' aggregate gains and losses can be less than or more than zero.

Unfortunately for the Thunder, iso-ball is not just a non-zero-plus game, but a negative non-zero-plus game. Everyone loses.

Case in point. This is the Thunder’s box score from the seven minute mark of the 4th quarter until the end of the third overtime:

Again, not picking on Carmelo Anthony. How could I? He only took 4 shots in the last 22 minutes, but half of these 4 shots were iso-pull-ups.

One area that jumps out from that box score are the total lack of shots from Roberson and Adams. Robes two touches came at the end of the second overtime and another in the third overtime. Ironically, the third overtime was the deciding period. Adams never got a shot, in 22 minutes.

Andre’s first touch at the end of the second overtime could have won the game, but this is where the non-zero-sum theory comes into play. After seventeen minutes without a single shot, Westbrook’s pocket pass when he had a lane to the basket came completely out of the blue and caught Roberson completely off guard.

He was positioning for a rebound looking for the same scraps he had gotten the last 16 minutes and 58 seconds and not the ball. Let’s be fair, why would he? The hero that had taken over 50% of the team’s shots since the seven minute mark had the ball and a lane to the rim. My guess is that in Robes mind, and definitely his injured ankle’s take on the situation was for Russell to just take the damn shot and get this over with, don’t pawn it off on me now.

This could all be partly swept under the rug until you look at the numbers of the players guilty of taking the most shots. George and Westbrook took over 75% of the Thunder's last 40 shots but converted less than 30% of those 31 attempts!!!


The Iso-ball Non-Zero-Sum game in full effect.

First the ball and bodies stop moving. Then gaps and space that got role players involved disappear right along with their touches. Eventually the opposing defense regains its second wind and turns its complete focus on the Iso-Kings and then their contested jumpers stop falling as the defense gets more and more aggressive.

It’s a vicious downward spiral that we have seen this Thunder team fall victim to time and time again that only leads to some degree of heartache, thus my earlier reference to a 12-step program.

Basketball teams are like a family and Westbrook, George, and Melo’s addiction to isolation basketball is destroying it. Alcoholics know they can’t take that first drink, gamblers can’t make that first bet, and the members of the Thunders Iso-ballaholics, the OKC3, have to realize that first unnecessary hero-ball shot is like a Lays Potato Chip, they won’t be able to eat just one.

Reflux Report

I’ve ordered a case of Rolaids from a wholesaler to save money.


How do you view the Thunders 6 and 2 start to the month of December?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Very encouraging
    (3 votes)
  • 22%
    Somewhat encouraging
    (22 votes)
  • 27%
    Even blind hogs find an acorn every once in a while.
    (26 votes)
  • 10%
    The calm before the storm
    (10 votes)
  • 9%
    (9 votes)
  • 17%
    Not encouraged at all
    (17 votes)
  • 9%
    Are they still playing basketball?
    (9 votes)
96 votes total Vote Now