LOS ANGELES — After another big lead vanished, after another role player erupted for a career night and after another 48 minutes of futility on defense, the Thunder’s problems became clear Sunday afternoon.
Brace yourself. It isn’t pleasant.
But what’s really ailing Oklahoma City is no longer a secret after it was exposed in a nationally televised 114-110 embarrassment to the Lakers, the worst team in the Western Conference.
A tight-knit team that for much of the season has maintained a laser-like focus on winning a championship has disbanded since the All-Star break into a bunch of dudes with different agendas.
Kevin Durant is gunning for his first Most Valuable Player award. Reggie Jackson is playing for a lucrative contract extension this summer. Russell Westbrook is working to regain his rhythm.
No longer is this team playing for each other. That much is evident in any of this team’s abundance of defensive breakdowns. Players that once were on a string defensively now look bewildered when opponents blow by them. More than ever, Thunder players are chirping at teammates who were supposed to have their backs but are currently nowhere in sight.
Jodie Meeks stepped in as the latest player to torch the Thunder’s porous defense, scoring a career-high 42 points on 11-for-18 shooting Sunday. He made six of 11 3-pointers, and all 14 of his free throws while no one from the Thunder accepted the challenge of putting out that fire.
“That’s the second game in a row somebody got 40 on us that’s not supposed to score 40,” said Durant.
Three nights earlier, in a 128-122 road loss at Phoenix, the Thunder watched Gerald Green pump in a career-high 41 points.
“It comes down to just taking pride in guarding your man,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
It certainly doesn’t help that the Thunder is shorthanded. The two guys OKC is missing, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, happen to anchor the team’s defense while accepting the responsibility of doing the dirty work. Without them, what’s left is a team filled with score-first mind frames and a side of youth that’s not quite ready to contribute consistently. Guys such as Steven Adams and Perry Jones II are being relied upon in their respective first and second seasons to supply the same savvy as Sefolosha and Perkins.
But chalking up this team’s woes solely to injuries would be misguided. Too much talent remains in the cupboard for the Thunder to have lost five of eight since the break while allowing a staggering 110.2 points on average and 47.4 percent shooting over that span.
“We’re in a little bit of a defensive valley,” Brooks said. “The good thing about it, this is not who we are. We can get back to what we’ve done all season long.”
The remedy has little to do with energy, effort or strategy. Instead, it seems it’s as simple as focus, as simple as the Thunder reverting to the tight-knit team with that singular focus.
“I just think as a team we have to decide what’s most important to us,” said Derek Fisher. “And if it’s the team success, then you’ll start to see, offensively and defensively, things tighten up the way they need to tighten up.”
Fisher compared citing the Thunder’s defense as the chief issue right now to perusing a box score and assuming a player with 20 points had a better game than a teammate with four points. As we know, that’s not always the case. And it’s funny Fish used stats to convey his point.
Because Durant’s triple-double, a 27-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist effort, was about as hollow as they come while serving as a microcosm of some of the selfishness that has resulted in this team’s slippage.
Durant piled up 10 points with five rebounds and five assists in the opening period. He helped the Thunder build a nine-point lead that quickly grew to 18 less than 21/2 minutes into the second quarter. But when Durant returned with 7:58 left in the second, he began passing, clearly in search of the necessary assists he would need for the triple-double. He didn’t take a shot until 43 seconds remained in the period. It was his only attempt of the quarter, and he didn’t get to the foul line.
Meanwhile, the Lakers were capturing momentum and complete control with a 21-5 spurt that pulled them within two.
In the locker room after the game, Durant, Westbrook and Jackson all struggled to supply answers to questions about what’s wrong with this team.
Moments later, Fisher stepped in front of the cameras and summed it up perfectly.
After questioning the Thunder’s focus, as well as stressing the importance of players respecting each other and the game, Fisher was asked if he wondered whether his teammates have the right priorities.
“No, I’m not wondering if they are,” he said. “I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team. I’m saying, right now, we’re not putting it collectively out on the court.”
And that’s this team’s biggest problem.