Jan 2, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives for the basket as Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) defends during the third quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Every now and then the OKC Thunder play one quarter of fantastic basketball than slowly fall apart. In tonight’s 98-94 loss, that’s exactly what happened.
Here’s the thing. These games are going to happen to the OKC Thunder all year. They are young. And still fairly inexperienced playing together. But you can’t help but love these games frustrated.
Oklahoma City jumped out to an early 27-13 lead behind a strong Steven Adams first quarter. He scored 12 points on 5-5 shooting from the field and 2-2 from the line; he got six attempts the rest of the game.
Jan 2, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) drives for the basket around Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jerami Grant (9) during the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Milwaukee won 98-94. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Russell Westbrook had an off shooting night-and in typical Russ fashion-decided to keep shooting instead of feeding the hot hands on his team. By the end of the fourth quarter, everybody not named Westbrook looked afraid to shoot the ball. The offense suffered because of it.
On the defensive end the Thunder had a difficult job keeping Milwaukee off the glass. The Bucks are a smaller team (well besides their 6’11 point guard) but their athleticism cause problems for OKC all night.
Instead of recapping the game (you can find Thunderous Intentions’ recap here if you are interested), we’re going to look at the five biggest takeaways from tonight’s game. Did you see something I missed? Tweet us @thunderousint or comment on our Facebook page and we will get your opinion heard!
5. Stretch/athletic big men murk the Thunder virtually every night
Jan 2, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Domantas Sabonis (3) during the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Milwaukee won 98-94. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
You’re welcome, because this is a two-part takeaway. The first part of this is the fact that Oklahoma City has struggled against teams with non-traditional big man. And this is at both the power forward AND center position. The second part of this is that Jerami Grant has become the most important prospect in OKC.
Going back to Part One. The Thunder have been hot recently; their last two losses have come against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Bucks. The Grizzlies rolled out JaMychal Green at power forward against Domantas Sabonis (more on him later). Green’s athleticism was too much for the Thunder and he finished with 17 points on only 7 shots. Fast forward to tonight and a much more skilled Jabari Parker did even more damage.
Parker’s ability to stretch out to the three-point line took Steven Adams away from the paint, allowing Giannis Antetokounmpo to attack the rim with ease. Neither Adams, Sabonis, Enes Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne (all of OKC’s traditional bigs) are athletic enough to stay close and in front of a player like Parker; it allowed Parker to knockdown a few jumpers that should have been more closely contested.
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Which brings me to Part Two. If you’ve watched the Thunder, you have seen that Jerami Grant is at his best when playing the stretch four. He’s got the wingspan and athleticism to make up for his lack of height, PLUS he’s developing a nice little three-point shot since joining OKC.
The more Grant plays, the more comfortable he looks in the Thunder’s system. In this day and age, you can’t rely on traditional big men to command most of your minutes at the 4 and 5 spots. Billy Donovan needs to keep playing Grant in crunch time like he did tonight; Jerami’s the only answer for opposing stretch four’s on this roster.
4. It’s time for Domantas Sabonis to be taken out of the starting lineup
Dec 31, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; LA Clippers forward Brandon Bass (30) drives to the basket in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Domantas Sabonis (3) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Quick disclaimer: this doesn’t mean I think Jerami Grant is ready for the starting lineup. Hence why I called him the most important prospect on the Thunder. What this means is that Domas simply isn’t ready to start in the NBA just yet.
When Sabonis is on the court with Westbrook, Oladipo and Adams he looks far too timid on the offensive end. He passes up open shots even though he’s one of the Thunder’s best shooters, and his defense hasn’t improved at the rate you’d like to see.
This decision isn’t about Sabonis’ skill though. It’s about his confidence. Instead of throwing Sabonis at some of the best players in the NBA, it would be smart to allow him to play against/with second-unit caliber players. Domas would (in a perfect world) become more aggressive as he doesn’t have to worry about feeding Russ.
In 26 minutes tonight the rookie only recorded one missed field goal, two rebounds and an assist. That’s just not enough production from your starting power forward.
Personally I’d like to see Sabonis’ spot in the rotation switched with Joffrey Lauvergne. Lauvergne brings everything to the table that Sabonis does (three-point shooting, solid basketball IQ) while also bringing a little more experience to the table.
Sabonis is going to be a very good player in this league. Before he can do that though, he needs to find his confidence that helped make him a lottery pick.
3. Anthony Morrow’s nine-game audition did not end well
Life comes at you fast. Just ask Anthony Morrow. 20 games ago Morrow replaced Alex Abrines as the “shooter” on the second unit. The Thunder won seven of their next nine games and Morrow played fantastic. I even wrote how he could be the missing piece.
Dec 27, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Anthony Morrow (2) passes the ball around the defense of Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the Miami Heat 106-94. Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
When Oladipo went down with the wrist injury, Morrow replaced him in the starting lineup after a quick Jerami Grant experiment. In his eight starts, the 31-year old only recorded 20+ minutes three times. During that span, the “sharpshooter” shot 5-22 from deep.
Now that Oladipo is back, Morrow has lost virtually all of playing time. He played five minutes in the blowout win on New Year’s Eve, and he recorded a DNP tonight against the Bucks. With the Spaniard Sharpshooter coming into form, it makes zero sense for the Thunder to keep playing Morrow. If he’s not hitting, Morrow brings next to nothing for the team. Both are terrible defenders, but at 23-years old at least they know Abrines can improve.
It’s truly a shame that Morrow can’t find a consistent stroke. When he’s hitting, he brings such an interesting dynamic to this OKC team. But it seems like Abrines is turning into what the Thunder wanted Morrow to be.
2. Victor Oladipo needs to change his offensive focus
Look, I love Oladipo. He’s my favorite player on this team. I love that he’s shooting over 38% from three this year. I also love his athleticism, vision with the ball and ability to attack the rim. We just don’t see those last three facets of his game enough.
In his first two games back, Oladipo has taken more attempts from three than inside the arc. He’s converting at an impressive rate (6-12) but staying outside the arc takes away the paint penetration that makes the Thunder offense go.
For his career Dipo averages a little under four assists a game, but that number is below three this season. With more offensive weapons around him than in Orlando, that number should be around five per game.
The problem is he’s become more infatuated with being a spot-up shooter than an extra playmaker when he’s on the court with Westbrook. Tonight he finished with four assists, which only makes this point more important.
The potential is there for Oladipo to become more of a creator in this offense. Just look at this play:
It’s going to take both Russ giving up the ball more and Oladipo taking a bigger role as a leader for this to happen. It’s too easy to stop OKC because everyone knows Russ is essentially the only true shot-creator. Oladipo has the same talent, he just needs to put his skills into action.
Jan 2, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives for a shot during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
When Russell Westbrook is the focal point of your offense, it’s best to get out in transition. The Thunder are ninth in the league with a PACE of 99.95 and they average 85.9 field goals per game, good for 12th in the league.
But in their last six losses, the team only averages 81.5 attempts. When Oklahoma City is forced to slow it down and run offensive sets, it allows the opponents to set up their defense. Instead of opening up the floor in transition, teams can pack the paint and force Russ to shoot jumpers. And that’s what happened tonight.
The Thunder attempted 78 shots, 28 coming from Westbrook. Only seven of his attempts came inside the paint; there’s a reason why he only recorded six assists. The Bucks essentially copied the Grizzlies defensive gameplan by constantly pulling two defenders back, stopping any sort of Westbrook transition.
Russ got frustrated by the third quarter (just like Memphis); this time instead of getting thrown out he started chucking up anything and everything. If team’s are going to play the Thunder like the Bucks/Grizzlies, Billy Donovan has to implement more offensive sets. Especially for Victor Oladipo.
Until Russ gets pressure taken off his shoulders, the Thunder will be stuck in the 5-7 range in the Western Conference. Of all five takeaways, that’s the most important one.