If this was a first-round playoff preview, the Oklahoma City Thunder have ample cause for concern.
Playing a Philadelphia team whose ball-hawking, nine-deep style approximates Portland and Denver – the Thunder’s two most likely opponents when the postseason begins in two months – proved a rude post-All-Star-break awakening. The feisty Sixers fought to the end before falling 92-88, and in doing so highlighted several worrisome Thunder weaknesses.
Obvious Weakness: Turnovers
Every attentive fan knows that the Thunder lead the NBA in lost possessions and suffer from a team-wide sloppiness. Russell Westbrook led the way with seven of his team’s 17 giveaways. He set the tone early, throwing away a pass 15 seconds into the first quarter en route to his 11th game of six or more turnovers this season.
Amazingly, Philadelphia only scored 15 points off of Thunder mishaps. That’s all the more remarkable since so many of those turnovers led to fast breaks; the Thunder tend to throw away passes or lose dribbles, rather than travel or step out of bounds.
Oklahoma City needs to tighten the screws if it hopes to make it safely to the second round of the playoffs. Potential early-round opponents Portland, Denver, Memphis and Dallas all rank in the top 10 for forcing opponent miscues.
Subtle Weakness: The Mental Game
Westbrook gave up at least two baskets by not hustling back after loose-ball scrambles. Kevin Durant got suckered into a foolish scrap with Evan Turner that could produce a suspension once the league reviews the video. Kendrick Perkins gave Elton Brand an unnecessary shove after the whistle, leading to a technical foul and leaving him one more infraction away from an automatic one-game suspension.
Westbrook’s ill-advised launches off the dribble draw the most attention, but it’s easy to catch most members of the Thunder failing the “keep your head in the game!” test at least once a game.
Weakness Masked By a Strength: Lack of Offensive Flow
Statistics tell part of the story here:
OKC 30 FG, 12 AST
PHI 37 FG, 22 AST
The Thunder offense tends to stagnate in halfcourt, as anyone who watches them for 20 minutes realizes. Only 49% of their field goals are assisted, which pales next to contenders like Chicago (61%), Miami (54.6%), San Antonio (59%) and the Clippers (58%). That lower assist rate reflects a huge number of isolation plays and relatively few easy baskets.
They get away with it because their highest-percentage play, the foul shot, is by definition unassisted. The Thunder draw fouls and hit free throws at the highest rate in the league – despite what happened in the last minute tonight, in which Durant missed two of four free throws and James Harden missed a pair that could have clinched it.
Will all those uncontested 15-footers make up for the relatively difficult shots that the Thunder’s iso-heavy approach produces? If tonight truly was a sign of what the postseason holds, the Thunder have reason to worry.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.