The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently sitting at 1-4. While perennial MVP candidate Russell Westbrook was out for the first two games, against the Golden State Warriors and up-and-coming Los Angeles Clippers, they haven’t looked great with him in the lineup either. They got bested at home by the upstart Sacramento Kings and lost to the struggling Celtics despite holding a 16-point lead in the first half. While the Thunder did secure their first win of the season Sunday night against the Suns, Devin Booker was hurt and they lost the fourth quarter by 13 points.
The Thunder have a lot of talent on this roster. Two All-Stars in Russ and Paul George. One of the best back-to-basket centers in the league in Steven Adams. High flyers like Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel. 2nd round steal Hamidou Diallo and a plethora of bench shooters like Patrick Patterson and Alex Abrines. Yet, this team looks rudderless, out of sync and frustrated.
This has been a team long ruled by Russ and his, at times, overly aggressive play. When he is attacking the rim and passing, as he did in the first half of last night’s game against the Celtics, the Thunder look solid. When he is settling for contested deep twos and long threes, the Thunder lose steam and allow teams to get back into games.
It has now been two straight seasons that the Thunder have been bounced out of the playoffs in the first round. The Thunder tried to make moves this offseason to help, including shipping out the expensive and inefficient Carmelo Anthony and adding point guard Dennis Schroder. What the Thunder failed to do however is add any semblance of shooting or defense. With Billy Donovan now firmly in the hot seat, this team needs to make up for lost games quickly. In a brutal Western Conference, dropping four straight games automatically puts you behind the eight ball.
The Thunder can pull it together. This is a veteran team with players that have made deep playoff runs in the past. However, they need to improve quickly or they could fall too far behind. Here are four ways the Thunder need to improve to start winning consistently.
4. Shoot better
Thunder after four games, keeping in mind Westbrook missed two of those games and its four games … but still:
FG%: 39.1 (Last in the NBA)
3PT%: 24.1 (Last)
FT%: 64.3 (Last)
Net Rtg: -10.3 (28th)
OFF RTG: 97.4 (Last)
EFG%: 43.4 (Last)
TS%: 46.8 (Last)
vs. Suns on Sunday.
— Erik Horne (@ErikHorneOK) October 26, 2018
This has been written into the ground already through the Thunder’s first five games but it’s simple, the Thunder are the worst shooting team in the NBA and it’s not even close. When your two best players combine to go 12-of-42 as George and Russ did Thursday night against the Celtics, you won’t win any games. The Thunder will never be a super accurate shooting team because of Westbrook’s propensity to jack and George’s surprising inefficiency thus far, but if they don’t start putting the ball in the bucket quickly, uh-oh.
3. Wing play
Over the first five games, in the wake of Andre Roberson’s absence due to injury, Donovan has elected to start 20-year-old Terrance Ferguson in his place. The second-year player has responded to this vote of confidence by shooting 27.3 percent from the floor and scoring a combined eight points over four games. An NBA player who averages nearly 20 minutes a game, is averaging 2.8 points a game. He also is 1-for-13 from three. Things have gotten so bad for Ferguson that he resorted to deleting his social media pages because of the backlash from Thunder fans.
The sad thing is, the next best option is another 20-year-old who just got drafted in the second round in Diallo. He is shooting over 50 percent and is being aggressive but he is super hesitant in shooting the deep-ball as he has only attempted two so far this year. Maybe Alex Abrines? He’s the best deep-ball shooter on the team right now, but he can’t guard other wings that well. Even when they get Roberson back, while he will help with defense, he is a notoriously awful shooter, shooting 22 percent from three last season. The Thunder will more than likely need to make a trade here soon because the lack of wing depth is absurd.
2. Play better perimeter defense
During the Thunder’s four-game losing streak, they allowed opponents to make a combined 39 three’s. The Suns shot better than the Thunder Sunday night, making eight three’s to OKC’s seven. Teams are shooting 35.7 percent from beyond the arc against OKC. The irony of this is, the best shooting team in the league — the Warriors, only shot 26.9 percent when they played OKC, so we know the Thunder can play better perimeter D than they have in the next four games.
Hey, NBA fans!
If you're looking for a team that hates making free throws AND defending the 3PT line, have I got a treat for you…
— Up The Thunder (@UpTheThunder) October 26, 2018
The Thunder looked like a team on a mission defensively in the first half of the game Thursday night. They were scrambling to shooters, rebounding well, forcing turnovers and contesting shots. In the third quarter, this all went to the wayside as the Celtics made eight three-pointers in the frame to claw their way back and take a one-point lead going into the fourth. They then hit three more in the fourth, including an absolute dagger from Marcus Morris to essentially seal the victory. The Thunder went away from their defensive principles and stopped contesting three’s. Yes, the Celtics are poor offensively right now, but they are still a great team and great teams knock down open shots. Something the Thunder have not been doing. Stepping up their perimeter defense will go a long way in producing victories for this beleaguered squad.
1. Improve in clutch situations
Here’s a fun fact for you: Oklahoma City has now played in nine minutes that have been classified as clutch situations. They have only scored nine points and have shot only 15.4 percent from the field within this frame. Guess how many points the Thunder scored in the final four minutes of Thursday’s night game against the Celtics: 1.
Wild right? You would think with two future hall-of-fame guards on your team, they would be able to make some shots down the stretch. Well, last night was a perfect example of how unclutch this team is right now. In fact, the Thunder, despite giving up a huge lead, actually led by nine points with under four minutes to play last night. You know what they did instead of playing patiently and within a scheme? Russ jacked up hurried contested shots that had little chance of going in.
russell westbrook in the final 5 minutes pic.twitter.com/gdzv83m9iG
— Nathan Marzion (@natemar3i0n) October 26, 2018
In the last four minutes of that game, the Thunder went away from moving the ball and crashing the glass. It resulted in an embarrassing loss on national television that has everyone wondering what is going on with a team that was projected by Vegas to have the third best record in the West.