The Oklahoma City Thunder split their short two game road trip, with a loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday, followed by a come from behind victory on Monday night versus the Dallas Mavericks. It was a tale of two games on this short Texas road trip, as Oklahoma City was in a barnburner with Houston, and a defensive battle with Dallas. Here are five thoughts from the bizarre back to back:
SECOND UNIT OFFENSIVE STRUGGLES ARE UGLY
This was more apparent in last night’s game versus Dallas since it was already a low-scoring game, but the second unit needs major fixing. I don’t think it is much of a lineup problem, as it is a game-planning problem.
All season, the second unit has ran the offense through Enes Kanter in the post, letting him go to work or trying to find an open man for a three. As the season went along, it was very successful as Kanter became good at passing out of the double team, or uses one of his numerous post moves to get an easy lay-up.
Now, as we get to the end of the season, teams have many times to play against the Thunder and scout that offensive game plan. As we have seen on this road trip, when Kanter struggles, it causes the whole second unit to struggle. That is due to how valuable he is to the second unit, but also due to Oklahoma City not having a plan B when teams shut down playing through Enes.
That is why I would like to see more of the plays ran through Victor Oladipo when he is in with the bench to start the second and fourth quarter. He is good enough to play make on his own, and would be great in a high pick and roll situation with Kanter, Jerami Grant, or even Doug McDermott. Overall, it would be good to see some more variation within the second unit’s offense, to keep the opponent guessing.
THUNDER WILL GO AS FAR IN THE PLAYOFFS AS THEIR DEFENSE LETS THEM
It is well known, at least this season, Oklahoma City does not have the firepower offensively to “outscore” a good opponent, let alone a great opponent like the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors. It starts on the defensive end where the Thunder have a proven defense that can get consistent stops when they are locked in. Versus the Rockets, it was a terrible defensive effort and the end result showed it. Houston scored at will, and showed they could embarrass Oklahoma City in a playoff matchup if the Thunder put out that kind of effort.
Then last night against Dallas, though a lesser opponent, the Thunder showed that with defense like they played in the fourth quarter, they can overwhelm an opponent and beat them by locking down.
Simply put, if Oklahoma City defends, they won’t have a disappointing playoff run. But if they defend like they did versus Houston, Thunder will be out with a quick, painful first round exit.
WHERE WAS DOMAS SABONIS?
Sabonis had his first ever DNP last night since being drafted by the Thunder this past summer. It was weird since Sabonis just seemed to be getting comfortable in his second unit role, but maybe should have been expected since Oklahoma City was going up against Dirk Nowitzki. This DNP from Sabonis was much more a matchup thing than anything else. Billy Donovan is not afraid to tinker with lineups, and he thought the tested veteran in Nick Collison would be a better choice than the rookie. It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but Donovan seemingly made a good choice, because Collison defended very well in the short amount of time he was out there. Donovan also played Jerami Grant in the small ball lineup which also took away a big chunk of Sabonis’ minutes.
That brings me to my next thought:
JERAMI GRANT NEEDS MORE MINUTES
Since the deadline trade the Thunder made bringing in Taj Gibson and McDermott, Grant has seen his minutes decrease from 20 to even 30 minutes a game, to maybe only 10 to 15 minutes a night. Rightly so, Gibson and McDermott need their minutes. But I hope by playoff time, Billy Donovan has found Grant a spot where he plays on a consistent, nightly basis. Jerami has been solid on defense, being able to guard the perimeter, and also can protect the rim with his insane athletic ability.
He has also been the second best three-point shooter on the Thunder roster percentage wise, and plays well alongside Westbrook or Oladipo. He has to work on his finishing ability around the rim when he isn’t putting someone on the poster, but it has gotten better as the season has progressed.
In my opinion, Grant is the closest thing Oklahoma City has to a two-way player off the bench and can be a big factor for them come playoff time.
DO NOT TAKE FOR GRANTED THE WESTBROOK HEROICS
Russell Westbrook did again last night what he has done all season long, by putting on an unreal fourth quarter show to will his Thunder squad to victory. You could see it in his emotion after the Thunder secured the win, in how badly he wanted this one and not to see his team suffer another inexcusable loss.
The Thunder aren’t quite built for a title run, and maybe their ceiling is a first round win, but do not let that stop you from enjoying this historic run from Westbrook. With his team down 13 points when he checked in early in the fourth quarter, Russell scored 16 of his 37 points in magnificent fashion, including the game winner with less than five seconds left. He also made key defensive plays late to go along with his offensive explosion.
Westbrook ‘s heroics, or “clutch-ness” if you will, have won the Thunder games that they probably shouldn’t have. He is doing MVP type things night in and night out, whatever takes for the win. The season is long, but it is nice to see Westbrook is somehow still able to make these types of plays this late in the season. Enjoy these heroics, as it could also lead to some wins in the playoffs that the Thunder probably should not get, if it wasn’t for Russell.