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Game 4: As Expected, LA Crushed the Young Thunder

Oh, wait…you mean it was the other LA?  Oh me.  Oh my.

Final Score: Clippers 107, Thunder 92

Stat leaders:

Points: Eric Gordon with 27

Rebounds: Krstic, Green, and Griffin all with 9

Assists: Eric Bledsoe with 8

Post-Game Analysis:

This outcome was shocking, to say the least.  What was even more shocking was that the outcome was virtually certain by the middle of the 2nd quarter.  During this quarter, the Thunder, for all intents and purposes, stopped playing the game.  In a dazzling display of nonchalance, the Thunder put on the performance of an AAU team that had just met before tipoff.

It cannot be stated strongly enough – the Clippers are one of the most historically inept teams in the history of the NBA, and the Thunder’s play made them look like playoff contenders.  Something isn’t just wrong.  Something is broken.

We could discuss the listless play, the dribbles off of the leg, the horrible 3 point shooting (4-26), and the refusal to put a body on young Griffin.

All of those critiques would be valid.  But addressing them won’t put a W on their record, especially facing a vastly superior Portland team tonight.  Rather, the team seems to have lost its own identity.

This is what I think is in play: the Thunder bought into their own hype.  I hate to say it, but that is what I see.  I see a team that does not seem to have any sense of taking the game seriously.  I’m sure if you asked them to a man if they took it seriously, to a man they would say, “yes.”   However, when you drop two games back to back by double digit scores, the latter to a team that has no history of a winning identity, and you look bad doing it, a message is being sent that the Thunder took themselves too seriously and their opponents not seriously enough.

Allow me to quote the great Crash Davis:

Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.

Sure, it’s fiction, and yeah, it’s baseball.  But I think this sentiment highlights something that younger athletes don’t quite grasp; that is, that everything matters.  Take a look at the 2010 Dallas Cowboys.  After 7 games, many of them ending with key players saying things like, “we can fix that,” “We’ll do that better next time,” and “We just need to right the ship and stop making so many mistakes,” you look up and their season is effectively over.  The Cowboys were predicted to be the first team in NFL history to host the Superbowl in their home stadium.   They believed the hype, didn’t take any aspect of their performance seriously, and now that Superbowl is gone with less than half the season expended.

I know that it is easy to go crazy living game to game over the course of an 82 game season, and the mistakes being made are correctable.  But are they being corrected?  Has their atrocious interior defense gotten better since game 1? Has their shooting percentage gone up?  Have the coaching decisions improved?  Not yet.  Of course, there is time.  There is plenty of time.  But that is the great narcotic to complacent teams (just ask Jerry Jones).

Like Crash Davis said, the difference between being an also-ran and a contender is the smallest of things extrapolated across the vast sea of endless back to back games in February and March.  Everything matters.

Games against the likes of the Clippers make the difference between a 42 win 8th seed and a 52 win 4th seed.   Tonight they’re in Portland.  It is time to get their head on right.

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Game 3: Reality Check

Final Score: Utah Jazz 120, Thunder 99

Stat winners:

Scoring: Millsap with 30

Rebounding: Millsap with 16

Assists: D. Williams with 15

Analysis:

1) The high level view.

Over the course of 82 games, EVERY team, regardless of how good, have games like this.  There are always a few games where everything is going right for the other team, and everything is going wrong with you, the lead balloons, and the team falls like, well, a lead balloon.   After watching the NBA for decades, I can tell  when it is happening, regardless of whether it is during the regular season or playoffs.  At that point, I’m faced with a choice; I can choose to become bitter, or I can watch the outcome looking for things that matter.  Everything matters; the challenge is finding some silver in the dross and have the patience to refine it.

Given that general rule of thumb, is that what this game was – an anomaly? Statistically, it is possible to conclude that the game was an aberration.  The teams took approximately the same number of shots, got a similar number of team rebounds, and attempted (and made) a similar number of free throws.  So all things being equal, the only large disparity was in the shooting percentage.  The Jazz simply shot better, the Thunder, worse.

However, here is where statistics can often belie reality, especially if you did not watch the game.  By looking at who scored the Jazz points, and where they scored them, and by how many assists contributed to these points, you can see a different story emerge.  The Jazz pummeled the Thunder on the inside.  Millsap and Jefferson met very little resistance in either getting to the spots they wanted or in taking the shots they preferred.  The Thunder’s interior defense was terrible.  This highlights the discrepancy between a team like the Pistons, who have no inside game to speak of, and the Jazz, who are adept at getting the right people the ball in the right places.  The Thunder’s interior defense against the Pistons was actually inflated, if that makes sense, because the Pistons are subpar in this offensive category.  It wasn’t as hard for Ibaka and Krstic to play well against the likes of Ben Wallace and the more perimeter-oriented game of Villanueva.  Against a true blue post-up front line, however, the Thunder were clearly overmatched and unprepared to deal with it.

There aren’t many teams that can throw up such a low post presence, but the Thunder are going to have to decide how they’re going to deal with that kind of lineup over the course of this season.    There is a good chance that the Jazz are going to fall within that low-50 win range, so the likelihood of seeing them in the early rounds of the playoffs is high.

Underscoring that prediction is, of course, that the Jazz are a playoff team.  I think they are, and I think after three games what is apparent is that the Jazz were not as bad as their record reflected, nor are the Thunder as good as their start indicated.

The other note worth mentioning is the gap between where Deron Williams is and where Russell Westbrook is.  Westbrook is a top 5 PG; Williams is probably the best.  When Williams has the proper tools, nobody is currently better at setting up his teammates, managing floor spacing, and possessing the innate ability to chase his own shots only when necessary.  Williams’ 15 assists came mostly within the confines of a half-court offense, which means that he ran the offense on his own terms.  Williams ran it efficiently and he found the right players who had the best shots available per possession.  

It is always difficult to decide how you’re going to guard a player like Williams when he has his entire game working, and sometimes you have to take an unorthodox approach to it. The immediate example that jumps to mind is how the Lakers put Kobe Bryant on Williams during the last two seasons’ playoffs, successfully disrupting the entire Jazz offensive scheme.

2) Silver.

But wait…this is a Thunder blog, yes?  It’s always difficult to find silver linings in a game where you get thoroughly outplayed, but since NBA basketball is often a game of mini-runs (perhaps to the rest room), you can still sometimes find spots where positives stood out.

The main thing that I look for during a blow-out is, how does a team decide it is going to mount a comeback?  When I think of the great teams in the past who had a penchant for knowing how to get back into a game (Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe’s Lakers, Duncan’s Spurs), I create a mental “To Do” list like this:

  • Establish that only heightened defensive performance gives you the best shot at coming back from a 20 point deficit.
  • Get the leading team into foul trouble quickly in the quarters, which will allow your players to get to the free throw line early and often for easy points.  It also lengthens the game, which can sway the law of averages back in your favor.
  • Change defensive strategy, including occasional full court presses.
  • Deviate from offensive weaknesses.  If the three point shot is not falling, stop shooting! It is remarkable how lack of offensive self-awareness frequently derails all the energy put into amounting a comeback.
  • Finish quarters well.  Meaning, when there is a minute left in a quarter, go on mini six to eight point runs.
  • Going into the fourth, cut the lead to under 10 points.

The Thunder did maybe one of those well – they did change up their defensive strategy, and in the 3rd and 4th quarters a few times cut the lead to 15, which is a manageable deficit to actually do something against.

But the rest of my list, they did not do well at all.  They did not play defense in a manner where they believed it was the only way that they could come back.  They certainly have the tools to do it – Durant, Westbrook, Green, and Ibaka are all long guys that can cover large spaces by themselves.

Frequently it was the Jazz that went on the end of quarter mini runs, undoing whatever gains the Thunder had made.  Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps it was youth, perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the situation. Regardless, scenarios like this will happen again.  The challenge is to learn how to deal with it better.  The Thunder need to learn how to deal with large deficits in a more clinical, deliberate, and process driven manner so that when the 4th quarter comes around they can be in a much stronger position to amount a final run that actually has a chance at succeeding.

Next game: at the LA Clippers on Wednesday, Nov. 3.