The consistently quirky Steven Adams — who deadpanned that he ‘cried himself to sleep’ after Game 1 — accurately summed up all that ailed the Thunder in an ugly series-opening loss to the Clippers.
“Just defense itself,” Adams said. “From communication to being engaged to locking up your own man. Pretty much just defense in general.”
Chris Paul’s Reggie Miller impersonation burned the Thunder. Certain schematic tendencies left them out to dry. But of all the Thunder’s issues on Monday night, everything stemmed back to an all-too-familiar area of concern over the past few months — a severe lack of defensive effort and focus.
It’s a franchise that has long preached defense first, calling it the team’s backbone and constantly alluding to it as an ingrained identity. But since the All-Star Break, the Thunder has been inconsistent on that end, giving up a ton of 30-point quarters and, including Monday night, 10 110-point games and five 120-point outings. The Clippers scored 69 points in the first half of Game 1, the most the Thunder franchise has ever given up in a postseason half.
Backs against the wall, OKC comes out swinging, mixing up that rare length, athleticism and competitiveness into a terrifying concoction of defensive force. It’s a turbo on-switch that few are capable of reaching.
But if it’s not a must-win, pride-on-the-line type atmosphere, the energy and attention has sometimes waned.
“Not that surprised,” an unworried Russell Westbrook said at practice on Tuesday. “Sometimes you have a game like that. You just got to be ready to bounce back.”
But that “sometimes” has been far too often for the Thunder lately. OKC flirted with danger in the Memphis series, but showed enough will and talent to escape.
Against the Clippers, though, that’s a potentially deadly strategy. OKC already spotted them one win. Another on Wednesday night and this one could feel over before it even hits Hollywood.
“It’ll be better,” Westbrook promised of the Thunder’s defense. “It’ll be better.”
And that starts with Westbrook, the head of the snake.
On Monday, he allowed Paul to get going. The Thunder’s gameplan understandably starts with keeping Paul out of the paint. But he’s still a highly capable 3-point shooter, hitting 37 percent from deep this season. Westbrook initially played him like he was Rajon Rondo. And with far too much space, Paul hit a couple wide-open threes and rolled from there.
“He wasn’t doing nothing crazy,” Westbrook said, brushing it off after the game. “He hit eight threes. You can’t do much but contest. He hit some tough shots and we’ll live with that.”
Paul certainly hit a few contested ones. But he had plenty of uncontested looks, too. And so did the Clippers’ other sharpshooters.
This isn’t Memphis anymore, with Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince lining bricks off back rim. Los Angeles brought some snipers to OKC, with J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford all capable of getting hot on the wing.
Each hit an open three after a Thunder breakdown on Monday. Barnes’ came after Thabo Sefolosha overhelped on a harmless looking pick-and-roll. Redick’s came off an offensive rebound scramble in which three Thunder players were outhustled. And Crawford’s came as a motionless Westbrook spectated 10 feet away, his feet in quicksand and his mind clearly not on the type of tenacious defense he’s capable of playing.
“We have another level defensively,” Westbrook said. “So it’s something we’re not worried about.”
Agreed on the first count, not on the second. The Thunder is capable of terrorizing teams with its defense. But to compete for a title, it’s about time they start playing it on a consistent basis.