Bearing in mind hindsight, it’s easy to see why the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers’ experiment would fail. Grouping up four aging stars – three of whom possessed bones made of twigs – was obviously sorely misguided. It took winning eight of their final nine games just to scrounge into the playoffs before being swept by the Spurs.
It’s hard not to look at this Thunder team and see the parallels; they’re built around three injury-prone stars whose playing styles clash, with few other offensive contributors, under a coach who is very much under the hot seat. And here they are 21 games into the season with only nine wins so far. Still, their expected win-loss record is far better than the actual standings reflect, largely due to their solid point differential.
San Antonio Spurs (15-7) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (9-12)
December 3, 2017 | 6:00 pm CDT
Watch: NBA TV, FSSW; Listen: 1200 AM WOAI
Spurs injuries: Kawhi Leonard (quadriceps), Derrick White (wrist)
Thunder injuries: None
Crunch time woes
The Thunder are downright horrible in the clutch this season, currently possessing a 2-9 record in games with a five-point margin in the final five minutes. Perhaps this is karma by the basketball gods for their unreal proficiency in crunch time last season, but more likely than not, it’s indicative of fundamental issues. They are hitting only 35.4% of their clutch shots including a galling 19.4% from three. Surprisingly, the numbers don’t get much better earlier in the game.
The offense isn’t working
OKC hasn’t been able to get into much of a flow offensively so far this season. They rest in the bottom third of virtually every category: 21st in offensive rating, 24th in assist percentage, 23rd in assist-to-turnover ratio, 25th in true shooting percentage and 27th in overall field goal percentage.
We can probably point some of the blame to introducing two ball-dominant stars to an entirely new system, but there may be a bigger area of concern: the wrong players are taking far too many of the shots. The Thunder attempt 0.4 fewer threes than the Warriors despite the fact that they only connect on 34.5% of them (26th in the NBA). Almost 40% of these shots are taken by Russell Westbrook (32.5% from three), Alex Abrines (31.9%), Andre Roberson (23.3%) and Jerami Grant (25.7%). Of course the offense will be inefficient if these are the guys taking your long jumpers.
But maybe these shots are taken more out of necessity than anything else. The Thunder have one of the worst bench differentials in the league. It’s easy to see why; their first sub is Jerami Grant, and the only ball-handler coming off the bench is Raymond Felton. You’re not going to get many open jumpers with a unit like that. Tom Ziller recently proposed that Melo should come off the bench to provide a badly-needed offensive spark. Melo wasn’t so keen on the idea, so don’t expect their second unit to get better anytime soon. Fortunately for OKC, however, they have been able to float near 0.500 because of their defense.
They are shutting teams down?!
We’re starting to edge out of the small sample size territory, and yet this stat still somehow persists: the Oklahoma City Thunder have the third best defensive rating in the NBA. Their incredible 100.7 defensive rating is in fact their best mark in franchise history.
Part of the reason their defense has been so effective could be the fact that they allow the fifth fewest shots in the paint. However, they also give up the most three point attempts in the league, and opponents are hitting these shots at an efficient 39% clip. So I’d consider that a wash.
The bigger factor probably is pesky defense. Paul George has been an absolute menace on the defensive end and has racked up the most deflections per game in the league, by a large margin. Coming in third on the list? Russell Westbrook. The pair have wreaked havoc upon passing lanes, placing the Thunder in first for steals and second for opponent turnovers. To climb back into the thick of things, OKC may not even need their offense to improve all that much if their defense can continue to cause all this chaos.
Matchup to watch: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Steven Adams. Aldridge has averaged 7.3 rpg along with 32 ppg on 62% shooting so far this week. This could probably qualify as the best week of his stellar career. The star big may need to show-out one more time for the Spurs to complete a perfect week. This will be no small feat against Steven Adams and the third best defense in the NBA, but it’s the perfect opportunity for LMA to show that he’s really turned the page.
Vegas line: Thunder by 5.
Game prediction: Spurs by 4.
For the Thunder fans' perspective, visit Welcome to Loud City.
As always Tony must dominate Fisher.
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