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Thunder outlook: 5 questions for the remainder of OKC’s season

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The Thunder have 25 games to surge toward the playoffs. What questions do they still have to answer?

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NBA: All Star Game Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in the rearview (as well as in Hamidou Diallo’s afterburner yet wash), we look ahead to the remaining 25 games of the regular season.

Here is where OKC sits in the standings:

Here is what I’m thinking about as the Thunder break like the wind toward the regular season finish line. What questions/thoughts do you have? Write them in the comments.

1. Why is the defense fantastic, except when it isn’t?

Watching an NBA team play elite defense — especially in this day and age — is such a rare thing because of what it entails. And it is such that even the very best of teams by necessity have to pick their spots on when to clamp down, because trying to harness 5-out offenses takes a physical and mental toll.

Matt Moore recently described what makes OKC’s defense stand apart. And, much to my heart’s delight, when OKC’s defense is on, it’s on. Their recent win over the Bucks is a great example of this capability.

But what is so baffling to me is, when it’s off, it’s really off. It’s not like they go from elite to mediocre, depending on who they’re playing or how much effort they put forth. They go from league-best to league-worst, and often from game to game. In 3 of their last 4 losses, they gave up over 130 points in non-OT games (the 4th loss was an OT game where they gave up 138 to the LeBron-less Lakers).

I’m still not sure why the swing is so wide; it’s like they’re driving in a high-performance Bugatti that can run 250mph on the Autobahn, but if you forget to check its vitals or drive it over a gravel road, the machine falls apart. And that awesomely overpowering drivetrain? That’s the Thunder’s pick and roll defense.

2. Could the Thunder get Paul George some easier shots through set plays?

Earlier this season, George disclosed that he had asked Billy Donovan to not run plays for him.

“I’ve always been a guy to just let the game come to me,” George told ESPN’s Royce Young. “Just play the game. If it’s a shot for me, if I can make a play, create for someone else, I’ll do that. A lot of times you run a play, everybody’s watching, everybody’s locked in, everybody’s pulling over and it just makes the game tougher for me.”

Not only is that a really good outlook in how he plays for himself and for others, but his performances repeatedly bear it out. It is a rare occasion when PG isn’t aware at who is open, who needs the ball, how to deliver it, etc.

But that said, there are times, and there will be times, when OKC should have some play sets in their back pocket to get George open looks on the perimeter and going to the rim. For example, in OKC’s loss to the shorthanded Pelicans, George struggled with his shot, going 3-17 from 3-point range, while taking only 3 free throw attempts.

To be sure, PG has earned the right to have the occasional stinker, but when the playoffs arrive, it will be good to have a few go-to sets that can get him going at the rim and to the free throw line in order to give him full opportunity for maximum impact, even if his shot isn’t falling.

3. What is with my strange fixation with Deonte Burton?

Maybe it’s because Deonte kind of looks like Dion Waiters, I don’t know. But what I do know is that Deonte fits Nick Collison’s mantra for bench players: When you’re a bench guy, you have to give the coach a reason to put you on the floor. That might be hustle, it might be defense, it might be the ability to knock down threes.

Despite his inexperience, Burton can do all those things, which included a career-best performance against the Blazers a week ago. He is a big, physical guard who can get to and finish at the rim, will scrap with players to grab rebounds, and most importantly, knows he has something to prove to give Donovan a reason to keep him on the court.

He has value, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it manifests in several game-impacting plays during the playoffs.

4. How healthy is Steven Adams?

At his best, Adams, is a multi-tool stalwart of the Thunder front line with underappreciated and underutilized skills that make the Thunder who they are. At something less than that, he is still a guy who OKC benefits from whenever he’s on the floor, and miss it when he isn’t.

The question isn’t whether Adams is injured; the question is, how many injuries is he carrying right now? And how beneficial will the last week off be for his season-long prospects?

The teams that will cause the most havoc in the playoffs — the Warriors, Rockets and Nuggets — all have dynamic big men that demand attention. The Thunder need Adams to be as healthy as possible to match up against DeMarcus Cousins, Clint Capela, and Nikola Jokic, respectively. And even against a 2nd-round ceiling team like Utah, Gobert demands high performance to counter him (as we saw during the last playoffs).

Donovan has improved in many areas year-over-year, but managing Adams’ health, given the punishment he absorbs nightly, is going to be one of the highest challenges Billy needs to solve.

5. What were we not getting from Patrick Patterson, and will Markieff Morris provide it?

There has been some, shall we say, spirited debate around the power forward position since the onset of the season.

I’m not sure if I ever went on the record as to my preference, but it was, given the evidence we had seen in the offseason and into the preseason, my opinion that Patrick Patterson ought to be the front runner for the starting spot. And I based this on what OKC needs from its starting 5 — muscle and size up front, defensive awareness on the back line, and consistent 3-point shooting.

And then Jerami Grant played like crap throughout the preseason, and it seemed like things would tilt 2Pat’s way. But it didn’t, and things further went south for him when he started the season off poorly, saw his overall shooting percentage drop to 27% in December. Meanwhile Grant, despite obvious shortcomings, surged in his contribution to team success.

However, that doesn’t change what I think OKC still would benefit most from at the starting PF spot — it’s just that Patterson hasn’t delivered, while Grant has given more than we thought he would, despite not being the optimal fit.

I don’t think Morris is a threat to Grant — the kid has earned his spot — but he is definitely a threat to Patterson, potentially offering all the things 2Pat was supposed to bring but hasn’t: stout defense, 3-point shooting with low usage, and an ability to finish at the rim.

Lastly, Morris is notoriously a testy guy (though his 75 career techs pale in comparison to Westbrook’s 114), and Dennis Schroder has proven to be a bit of an emotional firebrand as well. Will Markieff see OKC as the same oasis of tranquil that Dennis and PG have, and fit in seamlessly? Or will the heat of the playoff pressure cooker overwhelm them?

Bonus: One issue I absolutely do not care about

The MVP race. I absolutely, positively 100% do not care if Paul George wins or not.

But I 5% care if Harden loses.