State of the Team: Turnovers are problem

OKLAHOMA CITY – Somewhere lost along the way of the James Harden talk and the chemistry and temperature of the Thunder, there are some real issues that need to be addressed.

Like when is this team going to start holding onto the ball?

Twenty turnovers against Atlanta, 17 against Toronto and a ridiculous average of more than 18 per game so far through five games this season.

Then, a season-high 22 Thursday night at Chicago.

And the thing is, it probably doesn’t even matter.

A season ago, Oklahoma City was last in the league in turnovers, last in the league in assists and made it all the way to the NBA Finals. Things look similar this time around.

After all, it’s essentially the same group who made it through Dallas, Los Angeles and San Antonio in the playoffs, minus Harden, of course. The Thunder rank 27th in the league in turnovers, up from last year’s 16.3 per game, and 21st in the league in opponent’s turnovers, benefitting from 14.8 per game.

“Definitely, we have to stop turning the ball over,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s tough to win in this league when you give … That’s too many. We have to do a better job of valuing the basketball.”

The Thunder have not valued the basketball this season and, haven’t started with the toughest schedule, either. Meanwhile, the ball movement was great against Toronto in a Tuesday win, but the Thunder are ranked No. 14 in the league in assists. Despite all that, they were good enough to win at Chicago on Thursday.

I’m happy to suggest the reason for the turnovers and the lack of assists are due to Harden being gone, working up a new rotation and just the newness of the season. All of those arguments have merit, but the fact is, this is what Oklahoma City is.

In the long run, the Thunder are good enough to get away with it.

“We have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball,” coach Scott Brooks said after Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. “Twenty turnovers on our home floor is unacceptable.”

Makes sense, but is it really?

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and a complement of others make up for a lot of other shortcomings. What’s not acceptable if you’re the Orlando Magic, is easier to overlook if you’re Oklahoma City. Yet, here’s Durant averaging 5.2 turnovers per game.

Right now, folks will give the Thunder some leeway from the extensive miscues – as it was the defense, not really the turnovers which cost them in the home loss to Atlanta.

No team has ever won an NBA championship after being ranked last in the league in turnovers. It’s hard enough to get over the loss of Harden, securing a rotation and staying motivated, you’d think this team would do a better job of controlling something as simple as turnovers.

Who’s Hot: Kevin Martin has been sensational so far this season. He’s averaging
18.4 points per game and is shooting 52 percent from the field. He’s a career 44 percent shooter, but what makes his production so impressive is Martin is coming off the bench for the Thunder. He’s shooting 62 percent on 3-pointers and has made 30-of-32 free throws and scored 15 points on only five shots Thursday. It’s hard to come to a new team, it’s harder to show up on a new team and not start. So far, Martin has thrived.

Who’s Not: Eric Maynor can be a great piece for the Thunder, but he hasn’t looked comfortable yet. Maybe things will change after Thursday’s quiet rally.

Remember, Maynor was really good two seasons ago as the back-up to Russell Westbrook. He missed almost all of last year with a knee injury. This season, Maynor is shooting 37 percent. He was three-for-nine against Toronto and turned it over three times before coming up with his best game of the season, scoring 10 points in 12 minutes against Chicago.

He’s the best bet to spell Westbrook, but the Thunder could go with other options, including Kevin Martin or even Durant, who has spent some time bringing the ball up the court.

Three Thoughts

1) When it comes to the Thunder, Kevin Durant comes to mind first, pretty much all the time. Durant has not played poorly so far this season, but he has played differently. He’s averaging 20 points per game, but seems to be more interested in distributing the ball than scoring.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but if the Thunder are going to win at a high level, the scoring from Durant needs to pick up. Others need to be distributing to him, not the other way around.

Durant has improved his rebounding, going from eight per game last year to 10.6 this year, and he’s gone from 3.5 assists a year ago to 4.8 this year. Hard to complain about the increased production, but he’s going to have to start looking for his shot more.

That was the case again Thursday in Chicago where Durant was quiet until the fourth quarter. He had 13 shots heading into the final quarter – the same as Serge Ibaka, and that was even with Russell Westbrook having an off night. Durant started looking for his shot in the fourth quarter and wound up with 24 points, scoring 10 in the fourth quarter.

2) New season, same results for Russell Westbrook. He’s good and then he’s bad, but that’s what you get with Westbrook. He was bad in the season-opener against San Antonio, but bounced back with a great game against Portland. Then against Atlanta, Westbrook was 5-of-18 shooting.

The great thing about Westbrook is he doesn’t seem affected by his bad games and shows an ability to bounce back, going for 19 points the next game out against Toronto, turning it over just once in 28 minutes. The pattern continued Thursday when Westbrook went 7-for-22, yet he had 12 assists and just two turnovers.

Westbrook takes a lot of criticism when the Thunder loses. He gets a lot of credit when the Thunder win, too. However, he is constantly pitted against Durant in a lot of scenarios on whether he should shoot less, pass more and differ to Durant. That’s a lot of baggage to deal with, and this season is nothing new. It’s already started.

3) Motivation? So far the Thunder haven’t really shown much. They look good enough to be the kind of team to make a return trip to The Finals and then bad enough to not even show up against Atlanta and good enough to rally for a fourth-quarter win at Chicago.

This season, there’s more games, more time and less stress put into the early games of the season. Maybe that’s the reason we haven’t seen Durant have a highlight reel kind of game and have seen a lot of tinkering from Brooks.

It’s hard to get up for every game when you know you’re good enough to make The Finals. The Thunder have already been burned by that way of thinking.

Quotes of the Week

Coach Scott Brooks on starting 1-2:
“If we were a college team, the University of Thunder, and we went to the Maui Classic, I would be very concerned. But it’s not. There are a lot of basketball games to be played.”

Coach Scott Brooks on James Harden and the chemistry with this year’s Thunder team:
“When you talk about chemistry with our group, you haven’t been around our group. James was a good player, but it wasn’t “Dr. James.” He wasn’t helping the group stick together. All the guys do. Good teams sacrifice. That’s what we’ve done. Our chemistry has never been (something), I’m really worried about.”

Kevin Durant after the win in Chicago:
“Just a sloppy game. I can’t have six turnovers. That’s not me.”
News and Notes –

» Hasheem Thabeet had the best game of his short career with the Thunder on Tuesday against Toronto. He was perfect from the field, scored 10 points, blocked a pair of shots and had a steal in 23 minutes. He’s averaging almost 15 minutes per game as the back-up center to Kendrick Perkins and is scoring the same amount as Perkins – 3.8 per game.

Thabeet was injured in the fourth quarter Thursday. He returned to the bench and the team said it was a mild, left ankle sprain.

»Maybe Thabo Sefolosha is starting to get warmed up. He had his best game of the season offensively after being largely absent the first three games. Sefolosha made three-of-five 3-pointers and finished with 11 points and five rebounds and just one turnover in the win against Toronto. Heading into the game, Sefolosha was just 5-of-13 combined in three games. He didn’t attempt a 3-pointer in the games against Portland and Atlanta.

»Thabeet may really have to start playing better if Perkins is going to continue playing like he did against Chicago when he had no points, no rebounds and no assists in the first half in 12 minutes. Perkins did have five rebounds in the second half.

»Serge Ibaka rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter Thursday in Chicago. He did finish the game. After a slow start, going 5-for-18 in the first two games of the season, Ibaka has been good the past three. He was eight-of-nine against Toronto and then scored a season-high 21 against Chicago with nine rebounds and four blocks.

»Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had a combined one free throw attempt midway through the fourth quarter on Thursday. They finished with a total of three. If those two aren’t getting to the line, you have to figure, they are settling for jump shots. The more they get to the line, the more likely the Thunder win big.

» Guard Russell Westbrook wore a black, padded sleeve over his left shoulder against Toronto on Tuesday. He injured his shoulder against Atlanta the previous Sunday. He is not expected to miss any time.

»Former Thunder star James Harden told Yahoo! Sports Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti gave him only an hour to decide whether to accept a four-year, $54 million offer from the Thunder.

“After everything we established – everything we had done – you give me an hour,” Harden said. “That was one of the biggest decisions of my life. I wanted to go home and pray about it. It hurt me.”

Harden said he had just an hour, however, he went on to say he wasn’t going to be the star in Oklahoma City. If that’s the case and how he feels, it wouldn’t have really mattered if he had an hour or a year to decide. “It’s a different opportunity here for me,” Harden said of Houston.

»The Thunder will debut their alternate uniforms Friday at home against Detroit. The plan is to wear the alternate look again at home on New Year’s Eve against the Suns and then 10 times on the road.

What’s Next?

Friday, vs. Detroit; Sunday, vs. Cleveland; Monday, at Detroit; Wednesday, vs. Memphis.

After a stretch of games against some of the less-notable teams in the league, Wednesday’s game against Memphis should be interesting. The Grizzlies have always given the Thunder all sorts of issues and Tony Allen has been sensational as a defender on Durant.

Tower of Power?

The Thunder made the Finals a season ago and so far, it looks like they are just kind of going through the motions, but Thursday’s win at Chicago could be the boost the Thunder need – a road win against a tough team.

Certainly, this team is good enough to get back to the championship, but they don’t seem to be playing with an extreme sense of urgency.

Then again, maybe they don’t need to, either. Home games against Detroit and Cleveland seem to be duds, but if the Thunder slog through them, it will be quite clear, they aren’t too fired up. OKC needs a pair of convincing wins to get some fire back.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @Theandrewgilman