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Thunder notebook nuggets: OKC defensive slump is ugly, but stop panicking

by Darnell Mayberry Published: February 27, 2014

There are people who think I should rip the team. In the words of Steve Harvey, “(expletive), for what?”…

  • This team is still the best team in the Western Conference. It still has the best record and best talent and best chances in the West. Three straight losses hasn’t changed that. A forgettable month hasn’t changed that.
  • Just as fast as the Thunder fell into this hole, it can and perhaps will climb out. The next three games are against Memphis, Charlotte and Philadelphia. Right now, Wednesday’s wound is still fresh. Right now, it feels like the Thunder can lose to anyone, anywhere, after blowing a 12-point, third-quarter lead and losing by 10 at home to the shorthanded Cavs. But let’s not forget that OKC also can beat anybody. This is a championship-caliber team. And no matter how bad things look, three losses in late February aren’t going to make or break the Thunder’s season. They’re just not. So stop panicking.
  • The Grizzlies game could be significant. It’s a chance to get back on track against a good team. But more than that, Memphis’ defensive brand of ball offers an opportunity for the Thunder to reclaim what it clearly has lost: its defensive intensity. A slug fest isn’t guaranteed, especially without Kendrick Perkins available to help slow Memphis’ bigs. But in the last 11 meetings, which includes last year’s five-game playoff series, both teams scored in the hundreds only once. One team scored in the hundreds only three times. So it seems the Thunder has little choice but to get back to playing D. Friday could be the turning point that gets OKC out of this funk.
  • Scott Brooks: “It’s not something that we can continue to play defensively like this. But one of the things I know about our group, we’ve been together for a while, in an NBA season you’re going to have some ups and downs. You just got to stay with what we do and keep believing in each other and our guys have always done that. So I’m very confident that it’s going to continue to be that way. But we have to be better defensively. That’s three games now it’s not up to our level and we have to fix that immediately.”
  • Brooks briefly hit on it but didn’t use it as an excuse. And neither will I. But it’s a long season. If you’re expecting things to be great for all 82 games, you’re kidding yourself. It doesn’t happen. There are going to be rough patches for a variety of reasons. Do you have any idea how fortunate you are, Thunder heads, that this is only the second?
  • The first came when the Thunder went 5-5 in the first 10 games without Russell Westbrook following his most recent surgery. The Thunder is now 5-5 again in its last 10. Guess what happened after that first 5-5 stretch? A 10-game winning streak. And here’s the schedule over the next 10: Memphis, Charlotte, Philadelphia, at Phoenix, at the Lakers, Houston, Lakers, Dallas, at Chicago and at Cleveland. With that favorable schedule, is there anybody who thinks the Thunder can’t reel off another 10 straight? I know it wouldn’t surprise me.
  • Of course, the Thunder is now 0-4 without Perk this season.
  • Keep in mind that the Thunder also is adjusting to Westbrook being back, Perk being out and Steven Adams stepping in as the starter. That’s a lot. In time, things will in all likelihood get back to normal.
  • Now. About tonight. Terrible, terrible, terrible performance. No excuse for giving up 42 points in the fourth quarter. Not at home. Not against a bad and injury-plagued Cavs team. Not ever. This is one of the worst losses the Thunder has ever had. Cleveland came in 14 games under .500, playing on the second night of a back-t0-back and missing more than a third of its offensive production in Dion Waiters, C.J. Miles and Anderson Varejao. And yet the Cavs racked up 114 points — 17.3 more than they came in averaging.
  • In my eyes, the fourth quarter letdown started in the middle of the third. OKC came out of the halftime locker room with purpose, passion and pride, pouncing on the Cavs and looking to put them away after a unexpectedly close and competitive first half. The Thunder started the third on a 12-2 spurt, taking an 11-point lead that grew to as large as 12 with 6:49 left in the frame. Right then, the Thunder should have stepped on Cleveland’s chest and walked all over the Cavs before walking out of this one with a relatively easy win. Instead, the Thunder’s defense relaxed. And the Cavs quickly dug themselves back in it. In less than three minutes, Cleveland cut a 12-point deficit to three. The Cavs scored on four of their next five possessions. OKC scored on one of its next five and turned it over twice. Momentum had been shifted. Cleveland had become confident.
  • In the 5 minutes, 24 seconds that followed the Thunder taking a 12-point lead, Cleveland went 6-for-9. Five of those made field goals came from eight feet and in. That was the turning point. The fourth quarter was ugly and will be what everyone is fuming over. But that near-six-minute stretch is where this game got away. It’s where Cleveland captured momentum, confidence and a chance for Kyrie Irving to unleash his killer instinct.
  • This is the third time in three years that Kyrie has torched the Thunder. The first time when he came into The Peake and managed the game brilliantly with nine points, 12 assists and only one turnover in six-point win. Last year, he scored 13 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Cavs to a five-point home win. This time, he scored 14 of his game-high 31 in the fourth. He added five rebounds, nine assists and four steals.
  • In the last three games, Dwyane Wade posted 24 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists, Jamal Crawford tallied 36 points and Kyrie scored 31 points. Paging some perimeter defense.
  • Related: the Thunder has now allowed at least 10 3-pointers in three of the last four games. In those four games, opponents shot a combined 39 of 105 (37.1 percent) from 3-point range.
  • One of the worst things about tonight’s defensive struggles is there didn’t seem to be an identifiable cause. For example, against Miami the reason was turnovers leading to transition buckets by the Heat and LeBron James just being better than everyone that night. Against the Clippers, it was bad transition defense and bad perimeter defense. Tonight…???
  • Adams’ first quarter: four points, three rebounds, one blocked shot, 11 minutes, 53 seconds.
  • Adams’ final line: four points, four rebounds, one blocked shot, 25 minutes, 28 seconds.
  • The best Adams did while filling in for Perk? Avoid fouls. He committed just one tonight. That’s going to be important going forward because it’s going to keep him on the floor.
  • If the Thunder decides to use him, you could see tonight how much of a difference Adams could make on offense. On the Thunder’s first possession, Westbrook created an easy layup for Adams after posting up Irving. Adams’ other bucket came off a driving dump off from Kevin Durant. I see no reason Adams can’t average 10 points while starting simply by capitalizing on the attention Westbrook and KD draw and just catching and finishing while making occasional free throws.
  • Westbrook on the left block is a problem (for opponents).
  • Westbrook’s pull-up jumper returned a bit tonight. It still didn’t look automatic. But it did again look dangerous. He even was back to taking bad ones, like the one-on-three attempt he jacked with 8:24 left in the opening period. But as we’ve come to expect, he atoned for that decision by hustling and grabbing his rebound before converting a layup.
  • Aside from a few ill-advised shots such as those, Westbrook’s game was fantastic. And it was the one good thing that came out of this unexpected night. He had 24 points on 8-for-17 shooting (with some of those misses coming late as the Thunder fired away in an attempt to come back) with nine assists and three rebounds. It was by far the best he’s looked since returning from surgery.
  • But Westbrook didn’t care. He completely shut down any talk of his performance being a step in the right direction. “We lost,” he said. “No matter how I play; I could have 50 points. If we lose it don’t matter. This league is all about wins, man. It ain’t about individual performances. Every night you want to come out and win games. Based on winning games, you win the championship. That’s what you want to do.”
  • Almost lost in this loss is Westbrook playing 30 minutes, which is about four more than the minute count he said he was on. “That’s probably one or two minutes over,” Brooks said. “It’s something that I have to do a better job with.”
  • Westbrook on if he’s ready for more minutes: “We’re going to pick that up with Scotty and the training staff. We’re going to go day-by-day and see how it goes.”
  • Brooks went with a funky lineup late in the first quarter. He had Reggie Jackson with Durant, Perry Jones III, Nick Collison and Adams. So Durant was the 2 for probably the first time since P.J. Carlesimo was sitting in the first chair. But he defended Kyrie, who was out there with Jarrett Jack, Luol Deng, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller.
  • Brooks didn’t insert Derek Fisher and Jeremy Lamb until 7.1 seconds remaining in the quarter.
  • Still no Hasheem Thabeet tonight.
  • Turnovers were among the Thunder’s problems in the first half. OKC had 13 of them. Finished with 20.
  • The bench has to get it back. And when I say the bench, I basically mean Jackson and Lamb. Jackson wasn’t good tonight, and Lamb was virtually invisible. He didn’t make his first shot until the first minute of the fourth quarter and got lit up defensively. I said this on the podcast this week. Those two could be mired in a rare second- and third-year rookie wall. Neither is accustomed to playing this much. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are struggling big time at the moment.
  • If I had to pick between the irrational confidence Jackson or passive Jackson, I’d take the irrational confidence version every day of the week. But I do wonder if he’s gone a bit too far with how, when and how much he’s shooting. It’s clear he’s trying to establish himself. But he’s got to do it within the flow and let it come. Can’t force it.
  • We’ve talked a lot about Reggie not passing to Durant this season. Tonight, I saw something potentially worse. With 1:06 left in the third quarter, Jackson drilled a 3 off a feed from Serge Ibaka. But when he turned, he didn’t dap up Durant after KD extended his hand. It’s quite possible that Jackson just didn’t see Durant’s hand (but that’s hard to not see). But if he did and decided to leave him hanging, only then would I have real concerns about their relationship. I’ve always thought Jackson was trying to make the right play whenever he didn’t pass to Durant. But turning down his dap would be a form of personal disrespect. Again, I doubt there’s anything there. And in no way am I suggesting it is. I just saw it. That’s all. From what I can tell, Durant and Jackson get along fine.
  • Collison had a terrific sequence in the third quarter. He tipped in an Ibaka miss, drew a charge on Thompson at the other end and finished a feed from KD with a reverse layup. It was the trifecta of Collison’s ability to be in the right place at the right time, do the dirty work and unveil his unpredictable bursts of athleticism.
  • I thought this was quietly one of Ibaka’s best games. He had 16 points on 8-for-12 shooting with 13 rebounds, two assists and four blocks. But it was the way he got to those figures. He wasn’t nearly as much of a focal point of the offense as he’s been in the past. Shots weren’t coming his way early, but he didn’t let that stop him from putting his stamp on the game. He just kept defending, kept rebounding and kept making touches count when he did get opportunities. In many ways, this was the prototypical game for Ibaka. He registered his second double-double of the month not by being a featured player but by focusing on playing with nonstop energy and unwavering hustle. His relentlessness earned him a monster stat line, not his coaches and teammates making him part of the plan. If we see more of that from Ibaka on nights when he gets lost in the shuffle, he’ll become a double-double machine and a nightmare for opponents on both ends.
  • Up next: Memphis on Friday.
by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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