In a make-or-miss league, OKC sure is missing a lot
OKLAHOMA CITY — The last player out of the home locker room Thursday night, Russell Westbrook had just taken responsibility for a flat fourth quarter in which he went 0-of-7 from the field and missed a potential tying 3-pointer.
“Obviously we’re not starting the way we wanted to,” Westbrook said. “But we’ll be OK and I will make sure of that. So, not worried.”
Never has Westbrook, nor the Oklahoma City Thunder for that matter, started even 0-3 since relocating from Seattle. Make that 0-4 after Thursday’s crushing defeat to the Boston Celtics.
There are still 78 games and more than 95 percent of the season remaining, but there’s an uneasy air around the Thunder, a team seemingly positioned to hit the ground running this season only to sputter like a rusty lawn mower.
There was finally roster continuity, there was momentum from Paul George re-signing, there was a more suitable identity forming, there were savvy additions to bolster depth and flexibility.
And yet, the Thunder sit alongside the post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers as the only teams yet to win a game in 2018-19.
What’s disconcerting is how familiar it all feels. Even the game against Boston was basically plagiarism. Last season, the Thunder built a big lead with a swarming, impressive first half, and then lost 101-94 as the offense stalled. On Thursday, they built a big lead with a swarming, impressive first half and then lost 101-95 … as the offense stalled.
Last season’s team battled a confounding consistency issue, showing up to play great against the top teams but lowering its standards against the lesser ones. The Thunder finished with 48 wins and the 4-seed, but they never felt actually as good as a team hosting an opening-round series. The postseason — an ugly five-game series loss to the Utah Jazz — confirmed it.
It was never just one thing that plagued the Thunder, and that’s what kept everyone frustrated. There was no way to plug the leak, because they didn’t know where the water was going to pour in from on any given night. Against the Sacramento Kings, it was an embarrassingly soft defense that gave up 131 points. Against the Celtics, it was putrid shooting and free throw struggles (they missed 11).
Of course, there’s context associated with the woeful start.
“We’ve been through a lot, not making excuses,” head coach Billy Donovan said Saturday, as he proceeded to list a few excuses. Valid ones, though:
Westbrook missed the first two games and all of training camp recovering from September knee surgery.
The Thunder lost on the road to the Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers, and at home to the Celtics.
They are without injured stopper Andre Roberson, who has proven to be immensely important to OKC’s defensive schemes.
The Thunder’s primary issue is pretty straightforward — they can’t shoot, a problem general manager Sam Presti seemed to anticipate before the season.
“I’d love for us to have more shooting,” Presti said in September. “I think you look at the team and you say, ‘Well, on paper, if we look at these numbers, like this’ — totally see that [issue].”
Through four games, the numbers have lived up to Presti’s concerns. The Thunder rank dead last in field goal percentage (39.1 percent), 3-point percentage (24.1 percent) and free throw percentage (64.3 percent).
Per NBA.com/stats, on shots defined as “open” (when the closest defender is four to six feet away) the Thunder are shooting 39.6 percent (21st overall), and on shots defined as “wide open” (when the closest defender is more than six feet away) the Thunder are shooting 26.4 percent, which is worst in the NBA by a considerable margin (the 1-4 Houston Rockets are second worst in the league at 35.6 percent).
OKC’s effective field goal percentage — factoring in the true value of 3s — on wide open shots is 35.7 percent, also worst in the NBA. Second worst? The Detroit Pistons at … 44.6 percent.
Translation: Things couldn’t be much worse for the OKC offense.
The Thunder are generating more open and wide-open shots than they did last season. They’re creating more 3s, more open 3s, more corner 3s. They are just doing a terrible, awful, horrible job of making them.
According to NBA.com/stats, George is taking 10 “open” shots a game, and hitting 35 percent of them. He’s taking 3.5 “wide open” shots per game and hitting 35.7 percent of them. Patrick Patterson is shooting 10 percent — that’s not a typo — on wide-open shots. Dennis Schroder is shooting 21.1 percent on wide-open shots. Westbrook hasn’t made a shot defined as wide open yet this season (0-for-5).
There’s a belief things will balance out. A progression to the mean. Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality metric — which measures the type and location of shots, plus nearby defenders — shows OKC is getting the ninth-best looks in the league. But the team’s effective field-goal percentage is 9.5 percent worse than expected considering shot quality, the largest gap in the league. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, shot quality is more predictive long-term than shot making this early in the season.
The Thunder aren’t a great shooting team, but they are better than what they’ve been. And that alone would solve a lot of the issues with which they’re dealing, because other than moments in the fourth quarter against the Celtics where they lost some trust and Westbrook went Westbrook, the offense has churned nicely.
Both Westbrook and George stressed there wasn’t any panic.
“Miss or made shots, it’s my responsibility to make sure we get a good one, and I take responsibility,” Westbrook said after Thursday’s loss. “It won’t happen again; we on to the next.”
They are confident in their group, and more important, themselves. They have a straightforward home game against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night, and though it feels ridiculous to label a late October game against a lottery team a must-win, the Thunder would be facing a cold Monday morning should they fall to 0-5.
Westbrook is listed as questionable because of a sore shoulder, so maybe there will once again be a line of context to add to the losing streak. Regardless: OKC needs a W.
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