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Plus-Minus Week 2: crunch time ups and downs, elite defense, and Spanish magic

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What were the keys to the Thunder’s improvements in the second week of the season?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

A MUCH better second week for the Thunder. After a disheartening loss to the Celtics where the team reverted to some of their worst tendencies, they strung together blowout wins against an awful Suns team and a good Clippers team, then gritted out a tough road win against the Hornets.

Let’s take a closer look at the pluses and minuses from the last week of action.

Minus: Crunch time chuckery

With 4 minutes and 22 seconds remaining in last week’s game against the Celtics, Paul George hit his second of two free throws to put the Thunder ahead 94-85. At that moment, per ESPN’s win probability calculator, the thunder had a 94.1% chance of winning the game.

Here are all the Thunder’s offensive possessions after that moment:

  1. Russell Westbrook misses 19-foot pullup jump shot
  2. Alex Abrines misses 24-foot three point jumper
  3. Jerami Grant offensive rebound
  4. Jerami Grant misses 24-foot three point jumper
  5. Paul George misses 26-foot three point jumper
  6. Russell Westbrook bad pass (Jayson Tatum steals)
  7. Russell Westbrook misses 20-foot pullup jump shot
  8. Russell Westbrook misses 7-foot two point shot
  9. Steven Adams fouled, Makes 1 of 2 Free throws
  10. Russell Westbrook misses 25-foot three point jumper
  11. Russell Westbrook misses 28-foot three point jumper
  12. Paul George misses 24-foot three point jumper
  13. Alex Abrines misses 25-foot three point jumper

Over the remaining 4:22, OKC scored 1 point. Russ shot the ball 5 times, missed all of them, and only one of them (the 7 footer) was anything resembling a quality shot.

So, Russ shot them out of the game? It’s not that simple. He set up Grant and Abrines for 3 pointers they missed (all relatively good looks, and if any of those had fallen we might not be having this discussion) and tried to find Adams twice- once he threw a bad pass, but the second time Adams got to the free throw line. Russ let PG handle a decent amount in crunch time too- two of OKC’s best looks in crunch time (the play that resulted in Adams’ free throws and a wide open catch and shoot 3 from Russ) came on plays where George ran the initial play and then found Russ as the defense rotated. It’s too simplistic to say Russ was just chucking.

But then there’s this:

Russ isn’t Steph Curry. This is not a good shot. It certainly was not the shot Billy Donovan drew up in the huddle. This is just not an acceptable shot with the game on the line. Russ did a good job sharing the ball with George and Adams down the stretch, and the team just missed some good looks. It wasn’t all bad, especially against such a strong opponent.

But shots like that one just can’t happen anymore. Russ has to cut that kind of play out of his game. He has to cut those long pull-up twos out of his game. And most of all, he has to keep trusting his teammates even if they miss some good shots. Up until that last awful 3, he was better than he has been in past years. But he’s still got a ways to go.

On the plus side, he was excellent in the clutch against Charlotte. He still took a few too many long twos, but he got to the rim and looked for his teammates. He is capable of better than what he showed against Boston - that’s why it’s so frustrating when he reverts.

Plus: Smothering third quarter defense

The Thunder beat the Clippers in last week’s rematch on the strength of their third quarter performance, where they outscored the Clippers 39-10. This is the first time all season where we saw the elite version of OKC, the ideal of the team Sam Presti and Billy Donovan must dream about. The Thunder smothered the Clippers defensively, turning them over and getting a ton of easy transition buckets.

The Thunder run an extremely aggressive defensive scheme where they “trap” the pick and roll, having the person defending the ball handler and the person defending the screen setter double team the ballhandler. The advantage is you can get the ballhandler to lose his dribble and be forced into a tough pass. The downside: double teaming the ball handler leaves you with 3 defenders against 4 offensive players. That’s where the length and athleticism that Sam Presti so prioritizes come in handy. There’s so many long limbs and fast moving bodies to break up the passes opposing teams are forced into that OKC is able to force a lot of turnovers.

When an opponent is able to pass around this defense, they can generate a lot of easy looks at the rim or open 3’s. But when it works, the Thunder generate a ton of steals and a ton of dunks in transition.

Against the Clippers, it worked and won them the game. Last night against the Hornets, after trailing by 19, a similar run of suffocating defense in the 3rd quarter got OKC back in the game off a ton of easy turnover buckets. With how bad the team’s 3 point shooting is, those transition plays are key to sustaining OKC’s offense.

OKC’s aggressive defense was cracked by the Jazz last year in the playoffs. Replacing Carmelo Anthony with Jerami Grant has gone a long way to restoring the Thunder to an elite level of defense even with Andre Roberson still out. After a tough opening 3 games, OKC’s defense is now the 5th best in the league per Cleaning the Glass, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions- an impressive mark amidst a league-wide explosion in offense, although OKC has only faced only two top 10 offenses (Charlotte and Golden State) so far this year.

Plus: Tweaking the starting lineup

Credit to Billy Donovan. Patrick Patterson had the starting power forward spot coming out of camp, but from night one onward, Jerami Grant played more minutes and just looked better. Grant still isn’t hitting a lot of 3’s (22.7%, which is awful, although he hit big ones against the Clippers and Hornets), but he’s so good at everything else- his speed, switch-ability and help instincts help the Thunder sustain their aggressive defense. When opposing teams are able to bust the coverage and get to the rim, Grant has routinely been there to bail OKC out with a last second block (he’s averaging 1.4 blocks per game).

On offense, he’s still drawing fouls at a high rate- alas, he isn’t hitting enough of the free throws, and his low percentage from the free throw line and 3 point land is dragging down his efficiency. Still, he’s taking a high percentage of his shots at the rim and hitting enough of them to be effective. Really, he’s playing a role not too dissimilar to Andre Roberson- doing enough on offense to be playable (and he’s better on that end than Roberson), while helping his team dominate on defense.

Plus: The Alex Abrines experience is here

Even with 3 wins under their belt, the Thunder still have a glaring weakness: shooting. They have hit a truly stunning 26% of their 3 point attempts, the worst mark in the league by a mile. If 3 point shooting was a race, they’d be getting lapped.

Do you know who can shoot? Alex Abrines. After a shaky start, Mutton Chops is back to shooting a respectable 36% on his 3 pointers on nearly 5 attempts per game.

The Thunder like to stake their identity on defense, as discussed above. Their offensive struggles mean it’s really the only way they can win games

Do you know who’s been on the court for some of OKC’s most impressive defensive stretches this season? Alex Abrines, who has made truly significant strides on that side of the court. Yes, he will still sometimes get cooked 1-on-1; Kemba walker sauced him in crunch time last night. But he has improved in that area, he gets around screens better, and he can execute OKC’s scheme; at 6’6 with a long wingspan and much improved instincts, he’s much better at being in the right spot and rotating correctly than he was in past years. That matters a lot more for sustaining a great defense than occasionally getting beat off the dribble does.

Against the Hornets, he put it all together in a career performance. He played 30 minutes and scored 25 points. 15 of those points came off 3’s, but a few were off of tough layups, including one play where he passed up a 3 to drive to the rim and finished. He was also in the thick of it as OKC’s defense came alive in the third quarter.

When Abrines is on the court, OKC’s offense flows so much better- having two excellent 3 point shooters in him and George makes everyone else’s life easier. And he has improved substantially enough on defense that the team shouldn’t be worried about him ruining their ability to be elite on that end of the floor.

Terrance Ferguson has also been better on defense this week even if he still tends to disappear on offense, and if Abrines coming off the bench helps Billy Donovan with his rotations, fine. But nights where he plays 25 or more minutes off the bench should be the norm at this point, not the exception. Slowly but surely, Abrines is turning into the 3 and D wing OKC has always needed. Trust the Mutton Chops.