It took a little bit longer than expected, but the Oklahoma City Thunder appear to have hit their stride. And when better for them to put that on display than on Christmas Day, against the league’s second-best team, the Houston Rockets?
The Thunder are 7-1 in their last eight games and are currently on a five-game winning streak, including quality wins against the Utah Jazz (twice), Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers (in triple overtime), Indiana Pacers and most recently the Rockets. The Thunder beat the Rockets 112-107 on Christmas Day as Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony all scored 20 or more points while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.
The Thunder’s issues this season were never on the defensive end. They’ve been a top-five team on that end for the entire season and their recent winning stretch has been no different. Paul George leads the league in steals (2.5 per game) and Russell Westbrook isn’t far behind at third (2.1 per game). The team as a whole is first in steals per game and ninth in blocks per game and is posting a defensive rating of 101.5, the third-best mark in the NBA. What’s always been missing (and by always, I mean through the first 30-ish games of the season) is a consistent offense that wouldn’t habitually lay an egg for three games straight after winning “the one” that was supposed to get them over the hump.
Even after taking down a much-improved Indiana Pacers team on Dec. 11 during Paul George’s return to Indy (a game in which he played terribly) and then taking down a pesky Sixers team in triple overtime, they turned around and lost to the New York Knicks (sans Kristaps Porzingis) by 15 in Madison Square Garden just two games later. That was the only win by the Knicks this season without Porzingis (they were previously 0-5 in such games). The Thunder had two wins to build on, then crumbled once again.
But as it turns out, that win on the road against the Pacers was the moment the motors began to move in the correct direction – the moment the team started playing like an actual team. Up until the win in Indianapolis, the Thunder’s offensive rating was an abysmal 102.2, 23rd in the league. Since then, they’re posting an offensive rating of 109.8, eighth-best over that span of time.
So what’s changed? What was the magic button they pushed that has propelled them to play like the team that people once thought didn’t lose the Paul George trade (which is now up in the air)? The answer can be found in their increased team play and lessened isolation play.
A common problem predicted by Thunder critics was that there were never going to be enough basketballs to go around. Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook are no doubt ball-dominant scorers and need to be the focal point of the offense for them to get in a rhythm. It was suggested not too long ago that Anthony should come off the bench and take on the sort of sixth-man role that Dwyane Wade has accepted in Cleveland. Especially after Anthony went through a stretch in early December that he called “the roughest that I’ve had throughout my career.” Although, Anthony early on shot down the idea of him accepting coming off the bench. But the Thunder have found a way to make it work with all three stars in the starting lineup, at least as of late.
Westbrook is scoring more during their recent stretch than he was before, while Anthony and George are scoring less, but the key difference is that when Westbrook is the initiator and center of the offense, he creates open shots for his two counterparts. One of the best indicators of this is that Anthony is making 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers over the last eight games compared to 33.8 percent before that.
Anthony and George are taking somewhat of a “backseat” (if you want to call it that) role to Westbrook on offense, allowing the latter to run the show. Westbrook has actually been slowing things down on offense and working the ball around the court, something that was a foreign concept to the Thunder last season. The team’s overall pace is down too, but it appears to be for the benefit of the team. Westbrook is, as always, elite in transition and at attacking the rim, but he’s also an incredibly gifted passer. Now, he can get out of control at times and cost his team possessions, but he’s been doing a lot less of that recently and has been allowing the offense get into their sets and beat the opposition with organized play and superior talent.
Westbrook’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.86 in his last eight games, compared to 2.07 before then. He’s playing smarter, not faster. It just took him a while to adjust to having realistic scoring options around him. He had to do it all last season, even though a hidden gem in Oladipo was playing right beside him. Whether or not Oladipo could have been the player in OKC that he is now in Indianapolis is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Westbrook did what he could to win games last season (albeit with a little bit of stat padding), but contending for a title was never a legitimate dream. This year, the Thunder’s chances are much better and it took Westbrook a couple of months to figure out how to take advantage of his surroundings.
The Thunder still have a long way to go, however. They still need more consistent production from their bench if they want to compete with the top of the league. The Rockets, Warriors and Spurs all have great bench units that could derail starter-led Thunder leads. They aren’t getting the shooting that they need from Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines or Josh Huestis. Jerami Grant is becoming more and more hesitant to shoot the ball, and they need his confidence off the bench to provide a spark. Raymond Felton is currently their most reliable bench player. He’s played well, there’s no denying that, but they need more from everyone else to keep the pressure on.
The signs of an Oklahoma City rejuvenation are there, and if the Thunder can keep it up, the wins will follow. If their recent victory over the Rockets on Christmas Day was any indication of where this team is headed, then they’re in a great position heading into the new year.