The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Houston Rockets in their Christmas Day rematch, 113-109. A game after struggling to finish against both Utah and Minnesota, the 2nd half again proved to be the Thunder’s nemesis. After taking an 8 point lead into the half, much of what got them there disappeared as James Harden led a 2nd half surge for their 7th win in 8 games. OKC meanwhile drops their 2nd straight as the usual suspects manifested this afternoon.
The Thunder defense was on point in the first half, with Russell Westbrook facilitating the offense while limiting his shot attempts. He finished the first with 14 points and 6 assists, but once the team emerged in the 2nd, Russ’ offense went south. He shot only 2-10 in final stretch to go along with 4 turnovers as the Thunder offense ground to a halt.
Paul George was slightly off from his recent feats, but still within a reasonable margin for error, which kind of puts a spotlight on some of the games OKC HAS won. If they need him to be great every game, and the defense is going to struggle against more competitive teams, the Thunder are building an unsustainable model. And the place we’ve been highlighting since about 2014 as an area of weakness is the Thunder still do not have a reliable 3-point offense. As commenters pointed out, when you don’t have those kinds of reliable shooters, it places even more pressure on the offense’s ability to generate open looks everywhere else, and OKC did not do that today.
Exacerbating the perimeter shooting problem was the absence of Alex Abrines, who was out with a stomach bug. (aside: at some point it is going to have to be acknowledged publicly that Abrines, as much as I like his potential long-term, is a fragile player) In his place? Abdel Nader, and...I just don’t even know. I don’t understand giving him 10 minutes of action at all when he’s nary played a single meaningful minute this entire season. It frightens me to say it, but I almost would have preferred Ray Felton for those extra minutes. But in a larger sense, I don’t understand why Deonte Burton isn’t being made available. It’s limited sample size to be sure, but he proved that in small capacity, he can do two things: knock down corner threes and finish at the rim, while just being a big, athletic body and an attitude that is hungry to contribute.
In a vacuum, Nader’s stretch would be considered pretty bad. But in key 4th quarter minutes against a potential playoff matchup? Come on, Billy.
Aside from their shooting/spacing issues, perhaps the biggest reason why OKC stalled out in the 2nd half is something we and commenters have harped on for a while. Perhaps OKC’s biggest matchup nightmare is going against teams that can feature two effective bigs who can wear down Steven Adams over the course of the game. Houston got a fantastic effort from Clint Capela (16 points, 23 boards, 10 ORBs) and continued physical play from Nene, who grabbed another 5 rebounds in 17 minutes. By the end of the game, Adams had zero room to operate due to the spacing and his energy stores depleted by having to deal with the springy Capela and immovable Nene. OKC got outworked on the boards once again while giving up key offensive rebounds that led to 4th quarter points.
While I don’t agree with NBA analyst Paul Pierce’s conclusion that OKC suffered a “bad loss” today, as the Rockets have rediscovered their identity and their interior defense specifically was fantastic against OKC, falling to a team missing their 2nd or 3rd best player is not something on which confidence is built.
The Thunder peer into the new year with several problems that have to be addressed, and I’m not sure to what degree they are solvable. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be able to spell Adams when facing a similarly built player like Capela, but Noel got worked today. Dennis Schroder was supposed to make the bench unit more competitive, but Dennis got outplayed by the maligned Austin Rivers, who was literally signed yesterday. Those two Thunder guys have to play better, and Schroder in particular is being paid to be.
But from a more structural standpoint, I’m not sure how the Thunder will be able to deal with the double-big problem, specifically as it relates to teams such as today’s Rockets, as well as the Nuggets and Pelicans. Adams is all-star worthy, but the interior on both offense and defense will get exposed as long as Jerami Grant is starting at the 4. Every team faces problems, and these are OKC’s, and they aren’t simply going to go away.