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Plus-Minus: What’s behind the Thunder’s six game win streak?

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The Thunder reversed their poor play during the first half of January, but is it sustainable?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After a sputtering stretch of games where the Thunder lost to some of the league’s bottom feeders, the Thunder have closed January strong with 6 straight wins, including a victory over the Pelicans so crushing that Anthony Davis proceeded to demand a trade (that’s our story and we’re sticking with it). Besides getting the chance to play the Knicks, which is enough to make anyone look good, what else has got the Thunder playing so well lately?

Plus: Red hot shooting

The Thunder were not perfect over the last 6 games- but when you hit nearly half your threes, it makes up for a lot of other shortcomings. Over these 6 wins, OKC has shot 46% from 3 point land, the best mark in the NBA. Whatever it is Billy Donovan has been sneaking into the team’s breakfast cereal, he better keep it up- everyone has shot well from deep in this run. Paul George has shot 54%, Terrance Ferguson has shot 46%, Dennis Schroder has shot 50%, Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson have both shot over 50%, and even Russell Westbrook is up to 30%- still well below league average, but hey!

Some of OKC’s improvement might be sustainable, but you would expect regression to the mean pretty soon. Still, the mean for OKC may not be as bad as was feared heading into the season.

Terrance Ferguson is for real from 3-point land, shooting 39% for the season. Even if he regresses to that average after a hot shooting stretch, or even back to 37%, that’s a damn good mark- as is PG’s 40% and Jerami Grant’s 35%. Even Schroder’s 34% mark for the season is passable. OKC may not be able to win games with their 3-point shooting forever, but they appear to be at least an average-ish 3-point shooting team (aside from Russ, who still can’t fit a basketball through a Hula Hoop from behind the arc). And credit to OKC for not wasting this hot shooting spell and banking 6 wins off it.

Plus: Run ‘em off the line

In the first half of January — a stretch where OKC went 3-5 — the Thunder allowed opponents to shoot 39.5% from behind the arc. Over their 5 game win streak prior to the game against Orlando, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot just 32% form behind the arc. That comes out to about 4 points less per game allowed- a pretty monster difference.

OKC’s defense was in freefall for the first half of January, and it still has not recovered all the way. For the season as a whole OKC has posted a defensive rating of 104.7 (meaning they allow opponents to score 104.7 points per 100 possessions), the second best mark in the league, per NBA.com. Over the first half of January, OKC allowed a dreadful mark of 113.9, in the bottom 10 of the league. During the win streak, that improved to 109.0- a league average mark. Most of that is attributable to the improved performance defending the 3-point line. Some of that is luck, like Damian Lillard shooting only 2-10 from 3 despite getting some relatively clean looks. But some of it is tactical, like goading Joel Embiid into launching five 3’s (he hit only 1 of them) or forcing a great shooter like JJ Redick into a ton of tough looks.

OKC’s ridiculous shooting may not be sustainable, but their defense, which they’ve hung their hat on all season, can be. Pair a pretty good offense with a great defense, and you’ll win a lot more games than you lose.

Plus: How to defend an MVP candidate (secret — by really, really trying)

There’s more to this game than just shooting 3’s (much to Gregg Popovich’s approval). Witness Giannis Antetokounmpo’s performance against the Thunder last weekend. The Greek Freak, normally a poor 3-point shooter, went 3-5 from 3. Sounds good! But it’s a win for OKC that Giannis attempted five deep shots, even if he did several of them. The fact is, Giannis only took those shots because he couldn’t find much else against OKC’s defense. The Thunder barricaded the paint when Giannis got into the lane, and when he was able to fight to the rim, he still had to finish over one of Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel or Steven Adams- no easy task, as he found when he was blocked multiple times throughout the game.

This was not simply a case of the Thunder trying to force the other Bucks to beat them- Giannis is too good of a passer and his teammates too good of shooters for this to work. The Thunder did not send help on every play, and they were smart about the help they did send- they sagged off the right shooters, from the right directions, and recovering well when the ball moved. Giannis finished with as many assists as turnovers (4 of each), and the Thunder were able to hold the Bucks at arms length for most of the contest until Giannis found his groove in the 4th quarter. Keeping an MVP candidate from getting in rhythm until the 4th quarter is about as much as you can do as a defense.

Plus: Paul George — Clutch

For as impressive a career as he’s had, questions still hang over Paul George’s ability to be “clutch”- he hadn’t hit a game winning shot in his career until his three beat the Brooklyn Nets, and the man who dubbed himself “Playoff P” vanished after Game 1 of the Thunder’s ill-fated playoff series against the Jazz last year.

Over this current hot streak, however, PG has dominated in the clutch, even though everyone knows he’s the player OKC is trying to feed the ball to.

He crammed a dagger dunk down over Giannis when the Bucks had closed the gap in the final minute of the game:

He buried an and-one 3-pointer to save the day after a Dennis Schroder turnover nearly cost OKC the game against Philadelphia:

He came up with a clutch steal and dunk to finish off the Blazers (Russ followed up with an icing on the cake dunk of his own).

He buried the dagger 3 pointer to polish off a Pelicans squad that refused to die.

And finally, he hit two tough, contested shots late vs the Magic as Orlando was vying for the upset.

Look, some of this is luck. PG will at some point miss a big shot, just like Michael Jordan sometimes did, just like Kobe Bryant sometimes (often) did, just as Russell Westbrook sometimes does, just as all players sometimes do. Even with the recent string of good play, OKC is still drastically underperforming in the clutch this season, with a negative net rating in games within 5 points and under 5 minutes to go. They will lose more close games this season. That’s life.

But George is looking like one hell of a closer. If the Thunder continue to run real sets and move the ball in crunch time instead of clearing out and asking Russell Westbrook to deliver miracles, they’ll win more close games than they lose. The rate at which PG is hitting shots may not be sustainable, but the process that generates open shots for him can be.

Plus: A New Russell Westbrook?

Tuesday night’s win over the Magic won’t go down as the most memorable of this win streak, however long it lasts. But it was the best game Russell Westbrook has played maybe all season. It was the first time in a month that Westbrook shot more than 50% from the field. It was only the 11th time this season Russ has shot better than 50% from the field (the Thunder are 9-2 in those games) .

Just as important was the 7 makes is the 12 attempts, tied with the Knicks game the previous week (where the outcome was determined by half time), for the fewest field goal attempts by Russ in a game this season. And yet it wasn’t a “quiet” game for Westbrook- he got to the free throw line 12 times, dished 14 assists, hauled in 14 rebounds, and yelled a lot. Even as Paul George scored 31 points in the first half and Dennis Schroder scored 18 in the 4th quarter to ice the win, you felt Russ’s impact on the game.

Russ brings that positive impact even on the nights when he isn’t scoring well, which, this season, is most nights. His shooting from the field has not been any better over this win streak- he’s averaging 42% from the field, 1% better than the season as a whole. He has gotten to the line more often over this stretch, and while he’s not shooting any better from the charity stripe, the uptick in attempts has pushed his effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage back up to around his career averages.

Is Russ rounding into form? It’s hard to say. The game against Milwaukee, where Russ shot 5-20 from the field, was as bad for Russ as the Orlando game was good. In between those two extremes though, are performances like the win against New Orleans. Russ shot 9-19 and 4-8 from the foul line in that game, finishing with 23 points- not very efficient! And some of those 19 shots were objectively bad looks. But he also dished a ridiculous 16 assists and hauled in 17 rebounds. The Thunder would not have won the game without him, even as he barfed up some bad shots in the process.

Whether or not Russ’s slight improvements in shooting sustain, this stretch of wins makes clear that the Thunder are not winning in spite of Russ. They are winning in spite of his shooting, but that isn’t the same thing. Scoring has only ever been a third of the story for Mr. Triple Double. His passing is better than it’s ever been this year, his defense is vastly improved, and his pushing the pace and relentlessness opens up even more for his teammates than what his assist numbers reflect.

Would it be great if Russ was shooting better? Yes.

Would it be great if, given that his shooting has fallen off, he shot less? Yes.

Is he still making the Thunder way better, even with his shooting struggles? Yes.

That third “Yes” is the most important in telling the story of this year’s Thunder.