After losses in three of their last four home games – including a dispiriting heartbreak against San Antonio on Friday in which they trailed by as many as 27 – the Oklahoma City Thunder knew they had a trend to reverse. A game against the reeling Portland Trail Blazers seemed the perfect opponent for a return to normalcy in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
For the most part, it was, as the hosts built an early double-digit lead and rarely felt threatened en route to a 111-95 victory.
The Blazers served notice, though, that some Oklahoma City players have a few bad habits to shed.
Worst Habit: Pickup Game Defense
It has become impossible to overlook how many times Russell Westbrook and James Harden allow their men to penetrate on the perimeter, offering no more resistance than the attempted reach-around steal popularized by generations of playground matadors. Both players were guilty of at least a half-dozen such reaches as Tony Parker and the Spurs backcourt shredded the Thunder on Friday.
Tonight, Harden mostly moved his feet, but Westbrook allowed the noticeably overweight Ray Felton no fewer than eight uncontested forays to the hoop. Six of them resulted in dishes for dunks or layups, ball rotations for open three-pointers, or layups by Felton himself.
On Friday, Scott Brooks addressed the issue by inserting Royal Ivey to cover Parker in the fourth quarter, allowing Westbrook to save himself on defense. In the playoffs, where Kyle Lowry, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, and Parker await, that might not be a sustainable solution considering Ivey’s lack of offense.
Worst Habit That Mostly Works: Pickup Game Offensive Responses
Any playground player with any pride knows what to do when his man scores: call for the ball, take it right back at him and do your damnedest to return the favor.
Westbrook knows this all too well. Four of the first five times that Felton scored on him or beat him off the dribble, he responded by taking the inbounds pass and racing the other way for his favorite pull-up elbow jumper. This has become one of his most reliable shots, and he hit his first two tonight, but it was still a troubling reversion to the hero-ball moments that made Westbrook such a lightning rod for criticism in last season’s playoffs.
Worst Habit That Still Might Fix Itself: Single-Covering Elite Power Forwards
This blog has made no secret of its disdain for Serge Ibaka’s one-on-one defense, so memorably exposed against Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 postseason. LaMarcus Aldridge, who’d averaged 34.5 points in this season’s two previous clashes with the Thunder, seemed likely to exploit Ibaka’s flaws again tonight.
Instead, he missed 13 of 19 shots and committed three turnovers, facing mostly single coverage from either Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins.
Ibaka’s defensive fundamentals may have improved enough that All-Star big men can no longer feast on him. If so, his formerly-menacing team might regain the intimidating defensive aura it once carried, which has been mostly absent this season.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.