The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road, 131-120. In a game that felt similar to OKC’s loss to the Spurs, the Wolves controlled the game from opening tip and scarcely broke a sweat in keeping the Thunder in a position of pursuit from there on out. And for the 3rd time in a row, the Thunder faced a performance by a future lottery team that looked at times like a top 3 team against their defense.
The thing that is most worrisome about this loss is that the Thunder played kinda-sorta OK for most of the night. They put up 120 against a weak Wolves defense, Russell Westbrook scored 38 on an efficient shooting night, and they got Paul George back — although George played the way you’d expect a guy to play after missing games due to a sore shooting shoulder (25 on 8-25 shooting, 4-14 from three).
The problem(s) that welled up however are largely the same we’ve seen for the past 3 weeks, and a lot of it again is on Billy Donovan. He has not properly prepared his team on either side of the ball during this poor stretch, and yes, the team is playing a bad brand of basketball, but they aren’t even approaching the game with a semblance of an effective game plan. A few examples:
- Steven Adams finished with only 6 shots on the night. Yes, Karl-Anthony Towns can be a handful in the post, but the team never made him leave that spot defensively. Without having to make Towns move around, they seldom could create easy scoring opportunities at the rim for Adams or anyone else.
- Speaking of Towns, he scored 41 on 15-27 shooting, 26 of which came in the 2nd half. He got any shot he wanted whenever he wanted it, and the Thunder never gave him any different looks to make him think he had to do something otherwise. Yes, if you double-team him, other guys are open, but that’s why you develop a defensive strategy to know precisely where and when the doubles come, who is open, and how to rotate back.
- Overall, the Thunder defense is perhaps the most perplexing issue in the NBA at this point (besides the whole Boston/Lakers high drama). I think we’ve all come to the safe conclusion that their early defensive prowess was largely circumstantial and they regressed to the mean, but they’re barely even mediocre at this point. They readily commit to switching on darn near everything, and not only do teams know it, they’re counting on it. Minny got a mismatch whenever they wanted with Towns, simply by putting him in the high pick and roll and letting the Thunder fall right back into a self-made snare.
- Offensively, while 120 is a solid number, OKC never really made the Wolves work. Even as they created a fair number of free throws (managing to miss a woeful 13 of them), OKC never put the Wolves defense in a situation where they had to make decisions. Repeatedly it was quick sets and quick shots, and yes, 39% is a solid 3-point shooting number (off 46 attempts), there was barely anything else aside from Westbrook drives that were even attempted.
There will be a lot of hand-wringing tomorrow because the Rockets have effectively leapfrogged the Thunder (and the Blazers) into the 3rd seed, and the contrast is dizzying because Houston is tearing everyone up and the Thunder are as lost as at any point I’ve ever seen them in the past 3-4 years.
The playoff seeding is the fools gold at this point. OKC’s primary responsibility right now, and for the next two weeks, is to figure out who their best version of themselves is, and commit to pursuing it for 18 games. The last thing I want to see is another 1st round exit, but that’s what is in play unless Donovan gets his team on a better path soon.
They’re running out of time.