The Thunder is playing like a team trying to get its coach fired.
A slump is one thing. A Groundhog Day slump is another. Doing the same things over and over, the same maddening things that never have been indicative of this team, is maddening.
The Thunder lost to the Lakers 114-110 Sunday with the same script we’ve seen repeatedly since the all-star break. No transition defense. No perimeter defense. With some offensive holes mixed in.
Now, I don’t believe the Thunder wants to get Scotty Brooks fired. The players would be nuts to adopt that mission. Foreman Scotty never throws them under the bus. He rewards them at every turn, like a full day off in Los Angeles between the debacle in Phoenix and the Saturday practice at UCLA, which produced no discernible defense. Some NBA coaches wouldn’t have said “have fun” after giving up 128 points in Phoenix. Heck, some NBA coaches would have got on the charter jet in Phoenix and said turn this thing around, we’re going to Oklahoma City, and we’re going to practice there twice, and we’ll go to LA at the last possible moment.
But that’s not Brooks’ way. And it’s not the Thunder’s way to make rash decisions. So I’m not saying Brooks is in as much as two percent of trouble. I’m just saying his team isn’t listening to him anymore. At least not for the last couple of weeks.
Amazingly enough, the Thunder went into Sunday needing only a victory to have the NBA’s best record. Did you realize that? The Thunder’s prolonged slump — by my count, the worst slump in the Thunder’s last four seasons — hasn’t kept OKC from fighting for regular-season pre-eminence. But homecourt advantage seems such a quaint quest these days. Who cares about homecourt when that’s where you give up 44 points in a quarter to the Clippers and 42 points in a quarter to Cleveland and where your most notable achievement in a six-game homestand was routing the hapless Sixers and holding off a furious Memphis rally built with Grizzlies Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the bench.
We have seen so little of bad basketball, we had forgotten what it looks like. This is what it looks like.
Lack of focus or effort or concentration on the defensive end. Just no clue. The Thunder talks about it pregame and talks about it postgame, but the Thunder doesn’t embrace defense in-game. Doesn’t get back in transition. Doesn’t stop the ball. Doesn’t protect the hoop. Doesn’t find shooters spotting up for the openings they know will be there.
The Thunder’s two-game road trip was a launch-a-star tour. Gerald Green scored a career high 41 points for the Suns (eight of 13 3-point shooting). Then the Lakers’ Jodie Meeks scored a career high 42 (six of 11 3-point shooting). Next up is Houston. Just so you’ll know, Patrick Beverley’s career high is 20.
Obviously, the absence of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins has crippled the Thunder defense. We knew they were elite defenders. We knew they were relied upon heavily. We didn’t know that their absence would cause a crash to rival the walls of Jericho. But the evidence is mounting.
Perk went down against Miami on Feb. 20. The Heat was torching the Thunder, but the Heat always torches the Thunder, especially with Perkins on the court. But his value has been shown in every game since. I call Perkins Gran Torino (“get off my lawn”) but maybe instead he’s Friar Tuck, a curmudgeon who keeps the Merry Men in line. All of a sudden, Perkins’ $9 million salary seems a bargain. Perkins could name his price if he could return and get the Thunder out of this rut.
Thabo went down early against Memphis. Playing offensively-challenged teams Charlotte and Philly masked his void, but these last two games have shown his importance. If Thabo was healthy, Green and Meeks would be heroes to their mothers but no one else. Instead, they had landmark games and the Thunder had discouraging defeats. Sefolosha’s chances of re-signing with the Thunder is going up up up by the game.
There is time for the Thunder to recover. But trouble is, there’s not time to recover without Perkins and Sefolosha. They won’t return until April. The playoffs beckon third week of April.
The goal of any regular season for a playoff team is to 1) secure homecourt advantage; 2) be healthy for the playoffs; 3) play well down the stretch going into the playoffs.
The Thunder is squandering No. 1. OKC has fallen a half game behind San Antonio, and the Thunder is just two games ahead of Houston. Could be one game by Tuesday night. And the Clippers are only 21/2 behind the Thunder.
The Thunder’s health has gone to pieces. Russell Westbrook looks physically recovered, but he’s had three surgeries in the last 10 months. Plus Perkins and Thabo will be rusty/recovering going into the playoffs.
The Thunder has time to get back in gear before the playoffs and start playing well. But it’s not a turn-on, turn-off switch.
Even the Thunder is dominating on the scoreboard, there are signs of trouble. ESPN’s Hubie Brown warned us Sunday early in the Thunder-Laker game, when OKC was building a big lead. The Thunder is plagued by turnovers and poor transition defense. Then off came the wheels.
The Thunder had six turnovers in the first 14 minutes against LA but still built an 18-point lead. But the Lakers, realizing this team was not all that interested in putting away the game, were encouraged to fight back. OKC had five more turnovers the next eight minutes, and the Lakers got within five by halftime.
But the turnovers, we’ve always seen from the Thunder. That’s the price of playing racehorses. It’s been a good tradeoff.
The shoddy defense, that’s something new. That’s something alarming. That’s something that’s not explainable.
That’s something that will get a coach fired, if it continues for extended periods. I assume the Thunder doesn’t want that to happen. The next guy will not be nearly as accommodating as Scotty Brooks.