That the Thunder lost to the Celtics in their 4th game (4th loss) of the season isn’t particularly noteworthy. Boston has championship aspirations, a fully-stacked roster, and a coach of the year candidate in Brad Stevens.
What is noteworthy, and increasingly alarming, is the reality OKC is behaving largely the same way we saw them for 75% of last season. Which, I probably don’t need to remind anyone, did not end particularly well. That’s one thing.
Here’s another thing. Back when Donovan was hired but had yet to coach a game, Stevens — who had connections with Donovan while both were coaching in the college ranks — was asked about Donovan’s prospects as an NBA coach. Perhaps it was simply part of the coaching code, but Stevens was effusive in his praise of Donovan. He believed Donovan would be a great coach at the pro level.
In the past three outings vs the Celtics, we’ve seen a common theme. OKC outplays them for large stretches, only to fold with the game on the line. Whether it was Kyrie Irving leading the charge in the 2nd half, or one of those epic meltdowns against a ridiculously short-handed team that made even Celtics fans think it would be scheduling loss, the pattern has been that the Thunder could outplay the Celtics, but they couldn’t beat them. This same theme unfolded on Thursday where the Thunder built a 9 point lead over a team that shot 28% in the 4th quarter, yet somehow still got outscored 16-1 over the final 4 minutes and change.
In each of these cases, it was a Thunder team that appeared to be top in talent and drive, but short on how to actually execute and avoid critical mistakes when it matters most. I think one commenter here at WTLC put it like this — it’s as if the Thunder are afraid to try and execute with the game on the line.
Which brings us back to Stevens and Donovan. Yes, coach’s code and all that, but I don’t think Stevens was waxing poetic or simply being political. I think Stevens really does believe Donovan is a good coach, and I’m inclined to believe him.
So what then as to what we have been watching now for over a calendar year? This Thunder team is still a highly talented team, but they are not a good team. In fact, they often do the things that are the very characteristics of a bad team, and they did all of them in that 4th quarter let-down vs the Celtics. They committed stupid fouls early, putting Boston on the free throw line to manufacture points. They missed critical free throws themselves. They got lost on key defensive assignments that yielded the go-ahead three from Boston, and lastly they couldn’t be bothered to even try to run a single play in the final 4 minutes. Stevens now knows that, no matter what happens in the first 40 minutes of games against Donovan’s Thunder, his Celtics still have the edge to win the game. And every other team knows this, too.
How do we square all this then? Is Donovan a good coach (as Stevens believes) or is he something else? I wonder if the answer is somehow both. That you can be a great coach, and a lousy NBA coach.
OKC is now on a quest for mediocrity by the end of this week. They need to get 4 straight wins just to get back to ground zero. Could a mediocre coach make it happen?