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Sounds of Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder Still Looking for a Spark

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Passion for Excellence, Part 2

Mark D Smith @ USA TODAY Sports

It is obvious that the Oklahoma City Thunder have a problem when they play weak teams, and it has cost them in a big way in the standings this season. Three straight wins against the Hornets, Kings, and Lakers are encouraging, but poor and inconsistent play in all three of these wins — especially in the first half — remains an issue.

More disconcerting than the Thunder’s current 11 and 8 record against sub-500 teams is that the team understands the problem (and so do their opponents) but can’t seem to get past it. For example, before OKC’s recent road trip to LA, Paul George admitted the team lacked focus when taking the court against weak teams. He didn’t want to use the word “complacent,” but that would be a fairly accurate description of the team’s recent play against weak opponents. Further, after the recent 3-game losing streak, Carmelo Anthony admitted the team had a habit of looking past lesser opponents and prior to the Thunder’s last game against the last place Sacramento Kings, Coach Billy Donovan said it was important that his team enter games fully focused and cut the number of games it becomes necessary to pull out in the last five minutes.

One would think that once everyone is aware of a problem that it would get resolved. But then we see a first half of basketball like we saw the Thunder play against the lowly Kings, just moments after listening to Donovan’s comments.

The Kings game, an exercise in extremes

The Kings, already missing their starting PG Frank Mason to injury, started the game with a line-up consisting of nothing but rookies and second-year players. Their big off-season signing, Zac Randolph, never played, and two of the Kings’ top perimeter weapons, Buddy Hield and George Hill, didn’t enter the game until the 4-minute mark of the first quarter.

Under normal circumstances that should mean 8 minutes of imposed carnage by a team starting 3 All-Stars, but this is the 2017/18 Thunder we are talking about. By the time Hill and Hield entered the fray, the Kings were already up by one. When the first quarter ended, their lead had increased to four and with just 3 minutes remaining in the 1st half, the Kings had the Thunder down by 15.

A few, but far from all, of the Thunder’s 1st half “low-lights”:

1. Less than a minute into the game, the Thunder commit their first live ball turnover. Within 3 12 minutes they commit 2 more, and finished the first quarter with 7 total turnovers.

2. The Box Score with 3 minutes remaining in the second quarter:

nba.com

Nine Thunder turnovers, 1 for 10 from three, 7 missed free throws (with no Roberson to blame this time), only 6 assists, 26 points in the paint for the Kings, and no 50/50 ball wins for the Thunder

The Thunder’s radio voice, Matt Pinto, summed it up when he called the team’s play “lifeless.” (If you have never listened to a Matt Pinto Thunder broadcast, I highly suggest it. Less rah-rah, more facts)

Then suddenly, everything changed, starting on the defensive end, as is generally the case in games like this. After a few stops, the Thunder offense kicked in and the Thunder went on a 2 minute, 11-1 run, and finished the half down 6. The third quarter, a trouble spot much of the season, turned into a 36 to 15 rout in the Thunder’s favor that pretty much sealed the win, and with 7 minutes remaining in the game the Thunder had turned a 15 point deficit into a 16 point advantage. That’s a 31 point swing in 20 minutes.

Box score from 3 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter to 7 minutes left in regulation:

nba.com

The Thunder weren’t perfect during this stretch, as indicated by the continued issues at the free throw line, but the 31 pt swing shows they were clearly motivated. The game reminded me of the old days after listening to 33 RPM LP’s then putting on a 45 RPM single and forgetting to change the speed, then overcompensating to 78 RPM. It was so much easier to just pay attention and set the speed right in the first place.

This team has two settings, on and off. That would be enough if an NBA season was only 15 games long and went right into the playoffs, but it’s not. A team can’t go all out for the full length of an NBA 82 game season because they will burn out by Christmas, nor can they afford to just turn it off against weaker teams because the actual difference between a top team and a bottom team is not as clear-cut as the records may show. Any team can beat the Thunder when they play like they did in the first half against the Kings, and have — 8 times to be exact.

Searching for Middle Ground

Before I write another word, I want to make something perfectly clear. Like every Thunder fan out there, I get frustrated when the team performs poorly. So does my man Antonio Daniels, Fox Sports Oklahoma’s studio analyst for Thunder games. I have recorded some of his comments and shared them because his breakdowns make sense. They aren’t always flattering, often they are harsh, but I believe they come from his heart as well as his 14-year NBA career — which includes a championship season under a then-spry, young unproven coach named Gregg Popovich. Listen to one of AD’s recent comments:

Put me in the chair next to AD, because I believe this as well. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t waste all my free time looking for answers. Just so there is no question about where I stand, I believe in the entire team, players, and coaches, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely satisfied with any of them at this point.

In my Passion for Excellence post, I focused on the players, but now it’s Billy Donovan’s turn on the hot seat. The players are struggling to find it, so it is left to Billy to become that “spark” this team needs against weak teams, and he can start by heeding his own words:

Donovan was talking about players’ commitment to each other. Those words resonated with me then and still do, but I look at this Thunder team and see a gap between this team’s commitment when they play top teams vs playing middle and lower tiered teams. The verbal commitment is there for all of them — that’s the easy part — but by now it sounds like a broken record. The hard part is the physical and emotional level against all opponents (not only the top ones) and Donovan can fill that void.

You can’t expect anyone to commit to you if you aren’t willing to commit to them, and the best way to inspire passion in another is being passionate yourself.

For players, investing in helping other players and a team get better is a big part of the emotional commitment Donovan spoke of, but in the case of a coach, that’s his job. A coach isn’t out there on the floor diving for loose balls and battling for rebounds, so how can he/she show not only their total commitment to the team and its players, but inspire as well?

In my opinion, Donovan has missed two golden opportunities this season to do both: In the last minutes of the Sacramento game after Westbrook’ ejection, and after Carmelo Anthony’s ejection in the third quarter of the Thunder’s first meeting against the Portland Trailblazers.

For the sake of time, I will just focus on Westbrook’s recent ouster: (pay particular attention to the last few seconds of this clip)

Russ gets raked across the face, grabbed, body checked, then takes either a forearm or shoulder to the chops, but rather than review the tape for a possible flagrant, the ref calls Westbrook for a travel and then hits him with bang-bang technical fouls, resulting in his ejection.

I strongly believe Donovan and the Thunder’s problem with lack of focus when facing weak teams would be a resolved issue had Donovan passionately and immediately backed up his franchise player 10 seconds later, even if it resulted in his own ejection instead of Russ’. In fact, there may have never been an issue with focus to begin with had Donovan stood up for Melo 2 months ago in light of such a ludicrous call.

We’ll see? I’m sorry, but you cannot say you believe Russell was hit in the face and is as tough as they come, and then say you don’t know and we’ll see in the same sentence. That’s waffling, equivocating. If Donovan wants his players to trust him, he must trust them first and give them something to trust in.

Would Donovan getting tossed have kept either Carmelo or Russell in the game? Unlikely, but that is beside the point. The point is in earning his team’s respect and telling them...showing them...that he is not going to stand for that kind of behavior and treatment against them, and he is willing to pay a price to get his point across. It sends the message that on that court, no matter what, he will have their back.

Standing up for the players is a part of the gamesmanship required of a successful NBA coach, and it has been my observation that the benefits of doing so are two-fold. First, and most importantly, it earns the desired respect from the players, but also, whether it be on a conscious or subconscious level, it gains respect from the refs themselves to some degree.

The method behind the madness

The player/coach relationship in American professional sports is unique and different from most other countries. A coach is technically in charge, but his/her leading players are often making 4 and 5 times more money. Because organizations have so much invested financially in their players — not to mention the league itself frowns when its stars aren’t out there putting butts in the seats or gluing viewers to their TV’s — the usual coaching methods of discipline and accountability don’t often apply. For example, benching players, especially star players, is a good way for professional coaches in the US to find themselves unemployed because if you lose them, you lose your job.

As a result, coaches have become more creative in their methods of, not only earning their multi-million dollar rosters’ respect, but getting their attention as well. For the lack of a better term, I’m going to call one of those inventive methods the “Strategic Ejection,” which is the big brother to what I’ll call the “Strategic Technical.”

I first observed the “Strategic Technical” in the late 1980’s. Oklahoma University basketball coach Billy Tubbs was the master at motivating his team by drawing technical fouls. Whenever the Sooners were playing flat, sooner (no pun intended) or later Tubbs would get onto some referee until he drew a technical. Then, because he “was still mad” about whatever it was that supposedly drew his angst to begin with, he would proceed to passionately exhort his team to focus more and play harder. It worked. Time and again I watched Tubbs turn his team and a game around with the technique, and more than once I caught him covering his mouth and laughing to one of his assistants about it later.

Here is a Billy Tubbs classic from February 9, 1989. With his fifth-ranked Sooners down 13 to third-ranked Missouri just 5 minutes into the game, Tubbs waited for a missed call and then didn’t hesitate to attack when it came and intentionally drew the technical foul call. When that failed to get the desired results, Tubbs took it to an entirely new level. Enjoy:

I was at that game sitting about 7 rows behind the team and the crowd’s reaction was deafening. What you don’t see from the TV footage was the Sooner bench. Players sitting on their hands and hanging their heads only moments earlier erupted and the players on the floor, frustrated and unsettled prior to Tubb’s outrageous announcement, came to the sideline laughing and high-fiving. Tubbs set the microphone down, walked to the bench, grabbed his clipboard and called a huddle.

Not one eye wavered off Tubbs as his marker flashed over his clipboard, and when he put his hand in the middle just before play resumed, 15 bodies converged in a pile of crimson and cream as every player strained to get their hand on top of his. After the huddle broke, the affect Tubbs’ announcement had on his team was immediate. The Sooners went on a 28-9 run taking a 36-32 lead and broke the Tigers’ eleven game winning streak with a 112-105 victory.

Thirty-five minutes remained in THE most emotionally charged sports atmospheres I have ever experienced and Tubbs never came close to drawing that third technical. Accident? Psshah, people said Tubbs was crazy and I agree, he was crazy. Crazy like a fox.

Let’s watch it done the NBA way:

Take note of an important consistency in the clips shown above. The team with a championship winning coach that got the heave-ho was either behind or barely ahead of a team they should have been crushing. In retrospect, my guess is that David Fizdale wishes he had taken the “strategic ejection” route as he did above to motivate his team vs benching his star center earlier this season. Odds are he would still have a job and the Grizzlies would have fared better with their original coach than in the place they are now.

Did anyone catch Steve Kerr’s actions with one of his assistants just before his ejection? The nod, the possible wink, and the thumb gesture? Something tells me that Draymond Green hit the floor itching for a technical, and might even explain why Kerr sent him back out. Go back and assess Green’s reaction to Kerr’s ejection.

I’m focusing on Kerr, not because I like it, but because there is an obvious correlation between last season’s Warriors bringing in #35 and the Thunder trying to mesh 3 All-Stars this season. Additionally, unlike the rest of us that have grown up being told what is what, whether we like it or not, most elite athletes are nurtured, cocooned, and protected once their talent is revealed and require a special kind of finesse when it becomes necessary to criticize or correct them.

Kerr’s ejection came just minutes after this little exhibition:

This incident occurred on February 4, 2017, #35 still wasn’t fully on board with the Warrior’s style of play and things were getting testy. Green is the one berating #35’s first half play and Green was right, but Kerr needed to stem a rift that was developing between two of his starters, as well as alter #35’s play. By getting tossed right behind Green, Kerr gained leverage to get Green to back off #35 so that he could then step in and say the same things, but from a position #35 would be receptive to listen to rather than resent. Suffice it to say, #35 improved from that game on, leading to, among other things, the most narcissistic shoes ever designed.

nike.com

Conclusion

A coach intentionally drawing a technical foul or an ejection may sound counter-productive to some, maybe even crazy, but I’ve watched too many coaches utilizing the technique over the past 30 some odd years with positive results to dismiss the practice, but it is an art form. Performance art, if you will.

Most basketball fans have seen the movie Hoosiers and remember the scene in which Gene Hackman tells a referee to throw him out of a game so that his assistant, Dennis Hopper, the town drunk and the shame of his own son, is forced to step up and earn the team’s and most importantly, his son’s respect. That was a movie, but watch it happen in real life:

Ironically, both pitches that Cabrera got upset about were strikes, especially the second pitch. There really is no other way to put it other than Cabrera screwed up. The count was full, the previous pitch had been called a strike. In that situation, as a hitter, when in doubt, fight it off. Foul off the pitch and look for a sweeter one next time, or let an obvious ball go past and get on base. That however, is beside the point.

Williams’ bench was going to a bad place mentally because they felt the calls were inconsistent, and his best hitter had just been ejected. He needed to refocus his team by confronting the umpire with their frustration, and he insisted on getting tossed so that when he pointed out Cabrera’s mistake, he had already established an emotional investment in the moment and he would get a “yes coach” instead of an argument. The Giants went on to beat Williams’ team that day, but it took them 18 innings to do it.

It’s this simple. The Thunder need a spark they can’t seem to generate themselves against weak teams. They need someone to stand up and vehemently say, “this action (whether it be turnovers, lack of ball movement, etc.) and the results it is creating are NOT ok!” Or just plain “wake up!” and it looks like that job rests with Donovan.

Let’s admit it, we all need a verbal kick in the butt from time to time, it’s human nature. But, it’s also human nature not to like it, and that bitter pill would go down much easier and be more likely heeded if Billy were to “take one for the team” somewhere along the way.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The question is asked many times how Gregg Popovich gets away with treating his players the way that he does, often loudly and without care how it might make them feel or look in the public eye. I think one of the big reasons is obvious. Though the exact number is difficult to find, in an article written in 2012 it was reported that Pops had been ejected 17 times in his career. He has already been ejected twice this past November alone, and with a team missing its star player in Kawhi Leonard, so he already has built in excuses for why they might under-perform on a night to night basis. He has earned the right to tell his players they stink whenever they play poorly because he has demonstrated over and over that he is just as willing to put himself on the line for them, regardless of who is suited up. Not surprisingly, the Kawhi-less Spurs are currently sitting 3rd in the West, only 2.5 games behind the Houston Rockets.

Admittedly, some coaches probably go too far. For example, Don Nelson was ejected more than 79 times in career but, before you judge Nellie too harshly, I leave you with this — in the midst of Nelson’s 79+ ejections, he was named NBA Coach of the Year three times.