State of the Thunder: Off to slow starts

OKLAHOMA CITY – After a first quarter where the Thunder allowed 63-percent shooting, gave up 33 points, got outscored by 14 points and ultimately got beat by a scuffling Brooklyn team, Nick Collison offered this up:

“We didn’t have our normal defensive presence in the first quarter and they made us pay for it.”

Well, Collison is right about one thing, the Nets did make them pay, but he’s off about another.

That “normal” defensive presence in the first quarter has been pretty bad lately.

In a season where the Thunder have been improved defensively, they are in the midst of a  first-quarter funk.

“We take pride in our defensive execution,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It wasn’t there tonight.”

Brooks was talking about the entire game where the Nets got up by as much as 23 points and wound up shooting 50 percent, but he could have singled out the first quarter. Again.

In the last three games, Oklahoma City is getting beat up in the first quarter, allowing an average of 29 points. That’s against Brooklyn, Phoenix and Houston – not exactly contenders this season. In the last five games the first-quarter average is 28.6 and in the last 10 games it’s 26.4. That’s a lot higher than their first-quarter season average of allowing 23.3 points, which is 10th best in the league.

The Thunder are 14th in the league in points allowed at 97.1 per game and that averages out to 24.3 per quarter. Not too bad, but getting warmed up seems to be an issue.

The last time the Thunder allowed fewer than 20 points in the first quarter was 10 games ago, against the lowly Hornets.

And sure, Oklahoma City is good enough to start slow and finish fast against Dallas, Sacramento, Houston and Phoenix, at some point, the defensive indifference catches up with you, like it did Wednesday against Brooklyn.

We’re talking about an elite team, so maybe the fact they know it has something to do with poor early efforts. Yet here we are. The Thunder are just 3-3 in their last six games and at least some of the blame has to do with their starts.

Houston scored 20 of its 26 points in the paint, suggesting Oklahoma City wasn’t being very physical. Brooklyn scored its 33 points on 63-percent shooting and getting 14 points in the paint. Also, Oklahoma City had three turnovers and other than Kevin Durant, the rest of the team went 4-of-15. It just feels like OKC is sort of sleepwalking early and rallying after.

That approach can work for now, but come playoff time, the intensity needs to be there from the beginning.

Who’s Hot: Maybe Russell Westbrook is breaking out of his season-long slump. He’s been better than 50 percent in two of the past three games and has scored 78 points in that same span. Westbrook also has 27 assists in the past week. He scored 24 points, had nine assists and just one turnover in the win over Phoenix. Westbrook is shooting 41 percent on the season.

Who’s Not:
Kevin Martin is just 5-for-22 in the past two games. Over the past three he’s only11-for-36. Against Brooklyn, Martin was 3-for-10. Martin does seem to be shooting more, but coming off the bench is a tricky proposition. It’s possible, despite a hot start to the season, that Martin isn’t completely comfortable with a role he’s never had.

Three Thoughts

1. Much has been made of Russell Westbrook and his shooting, whether he shoots too much and how much he misses (see above for what he’s done this week).

But Kevin Durant had a theory on why Westbrook misses so many layups.

“Because he’s terrible,” Durant said. Naturally, he was joking. Westbrook does seem to get out of control at times, but his shooting is starting to come around. “To be honest, Russ goes to the lane so fast and sometimes he doesn’t expect to be so wide open. He goes so fast and sometimes he misses.”

Don’t sweat the misses. If you are a Thunder fan, you want Westbrook going fast to the rim, instead of sitting back and shooting jumpers.

2. Clearly the Thunder are interested in Houston and James Harden. He’s scored 42 points in the two games against Thunder, but he’s gone a combined 9-of-35 shooting. Does that mean the Thunder got the better end of the trade that sent Harden to Houston and Kevin Martin to Oklahoma City? No, but it does mean the Thunder seem to get up to shut down Harden. It also probably means Harden presses a bit when playing his former teammates.

3. It might have seemed like a passing comment, but it kind of caught me off guard when Scott Brooks said he wasn’t going to let anyone tell him that his team wasn’t good after losing to the Nets.

Um, I don’t think a December loss to anyone means too much, and certainly any loss doesn’t discredit the Thunder, so why did Brooks sound like he was Stuart Smalley doing a daily affirmation saying, “We don’t feel good that we lost the game, but we are a good basketball tam, and we will focus on the next game like we’ve always done.”

No one thinks the Thunder stink. No one.


“We’re a in a good spot. There’s no need to panic. Every time we lose around here everybody wants to go bananas. We lost a game. It’s all right.”

Russell Westbrook to the Oklahoman after Wednesday’s loss.


• It looked pretty bad on New Year’s when Russell Westbrook started bleeding after he got an elbow from Phoenix forward Luis Scola. Westbrook was taken to the locker room after blood was pouring from above his right eye about two minutes before halftime. All’s well, though. He got stitched up and returned to finish with 24 points and nine assists and just one turnover.

• Never know what’s going on with Scott Brooks and his rotation. Durant didn’t start with the bench players at the beginning of the second quarter for two times in the past three games, but he was back out there with the reserves against Brooklyn. Durant played 21 minutes in the first half against the Nets.

• Turnover situation is curious these days in OKC. As fast as the Thunder like to play, the five turnovers against Phoenix is amazing. Then against the Nets, the Thunder had 19 which turned into 30 points. That’s pretty much the ballgame right there.

• I just happened to be in the tunnel Wednesday night before Durant got ejected. It was an odd scene as arena workers cleared the hallway before Durant made his way off the court. At the same time, general manager Sam Presti was outside the Thunder locker room watching it all play out on TV. He didn’t say anything to Durant. He did pat him on the back. Durant didn’t speak with anyone on the way to the locker room.

After the game, and after he answered questions about his ejection, he left the locker room and headed back to the court and he stopped to talk to everyone on the way, hugging ushers and saying good night to arena workers.

That’s part of the reasons fans like him so much and part of the reason he should be given a pass for getting ejected. Russell Westbrook is impressive, but he doesn’t hold the same sort of charm Durant has.

• The Thunder were given a delay of game warning Wednesday. Odd rule, but it’s in there to discourage teams for grandstanding before tipoff.

Up next

After a home game against Philadelphia, the Thunder hit the road for two games, against Toronto on Sunday and then against Washington on Monday. They’ll return home Wednesday for a game against Minnesota. The Thunder are a combined 2-1 against those teams this season.

Tower of Power?
Well, just a 3-3 mark in the past six games, but even the elite teams are allowed some wiggle room. Personally, I think it’s a focus issue. It’s December, the Thunder are already 24-7 and they don’t see a lot of urgency to start games fast. That will likely change come February.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman