In today's edition of The Questionable Blogger, we're once again visiting with J.A. Sherman of SBNation's Oklahoma City Thunder blog, Welcome to Loud City. The Clippers and Thunder met way back in January, back when the Clippers were a good and exciting basketball team and you may want to review the Q&A we did with JAS at that time as well.
As always, keep an on eye WtLC for my answer's to his questions, and thanks to J.A. for taking the time to provide these insights. Reading his first answer, you could almost take it word for word as a description of some recent Clippers play. Sleepwalking? Check. Not always ready to play? Check. I guess the Thunder are going through something a bit like what the Clippers are going through.
Steve Perrin: The Thunder tore through the first two months of the season and were 29-7 on March 1. Since then, they are 5-5, with the three recent losses occurring at home where they had previously been unbeatable. What's the deal? Is it just a brief swoon soon to be forgotten, or is there a bigger problem here?
J.A. Sherman: The Thunder have been going through a woeful stretch as of late, and perhaps you Clippers fans can relate. After starting out like gangbusters and looking like they were ready to set the world on fire, the Thunder have sleepwalked through the month of March, losing a number of winnable games simply because they weren't focused. To be sure, there will always be losses like the Thunder suffered against the Rockets, where Houston just made an amazing comeback. Aside from that, there have been recent losses to the Cavaliers, Hawks, and last night to the Jazz, and those losses were confounding. In watching those games, two elements seemed consistent - 1) the Thunder did not look ready to play; and 2) they never corrected their behavior even when the games remained winnable.
One Thunder beat writer described the Thunder thus: it looks like they are bored with the process of learning how to win. OKC is so talented, so athletic, and capable of playing just about any style of game, but when the process of rounding out the team's weak spots becomes too much trouble to consider, what happens is the team's motivation is more about who they're playing rather than how they are playing. Of course if that is the primary focus, then the team's motivation will rise and fall depending on whether they're playing the Clippers or the Cavaliers. And as we have seen, if a team is not ready to play, the team gets beat.
All of these issues are correctable of course, but it requires some self-reflection in order to self-correct. There is a month to go and 20 games remaining. It sure would be nice if the Thunder remembered how to rebound before tip-off tonight.
SP: Over the years, some great teams have prominently featured non-scorers. Guys like Kurt Rambis, Dennis Rodman and Bruce Bowen come to mind as defensive and rebounding specialists who didn't want or need a lot of shots. The Thunder have not one, not two, but three such guys in the starting lineup -- Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha are both in the bottom 10 in the league in shots per minute among starters, and Serge Ibaka is 23rd from the bottom. Obviously it's working pretty well, and we know why with Durant and Westbrook being too of the most unstoppable scorers in the league, but do you ever worry that the first unit lacks enough options? Could the Thunder be exposed in a playoff series against a coach with a very good scheme for stopping Westbrook and Durant?
JAS: Your question hits on the biggest issue that OKC had in last season's playoffs. Dallas' strategy against the Thunder was to aggressively double-team Kevin Durant, force Russell Westbrook to be the primary scorer, and all but ignore everybody else. When Harden was not on the floor (like during the Thunder's epic meltdown in the WCF game 5), it was like the team was playing two on five. Against a smart and competent defense, that match-up is almost always going to lose.
I'd like to say that the Thunder have begun to move away from that offensive strategy, but it is awfully hard to do so when your top two scorers are so good. The duo of Westbrook and Durant is averaging over 50 ppg (the 51 point, 40 point combo against the Nuggets being the high water mark), and so the team has once again allowed itself to be defined by how not one, but both of their superstars play. Of course the duality is conflicting; watching that Nuggets overtime game was one of the highlights of my basketball-watching experience. But you and I have been around long enough to know that if a team has to depend on those types of performances, the team is prepping for an early exit come playoff time.
One of the beautiful things about Dallas' run last season was how various guys like Shawn Marion and JJ Barea were able to step up when needed. The Thunder have James Harden as a third option, but his play has become almost necessary as well. OKC needs to continue to challenge their secondary offensive players like Ibaka and Sefolosha to look to shoot the ball when they have the opportunity, and coach Brooks must put them in a place where they can be ready to do so. Did you know that Nick Collison is a great perimeter jump shooter? It's true. OKC just needs to remember that fact as well when the playoff-level defenses pick up.
SP: Oklahoma City has ties to the Clippers stars. Blake Griffin is an Oklahoma native who played his High School ball in an OKC suburb and his college ball in Norman, while Chris Paul played his first two seasons in town in the Hornets temporary home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How do Oklahoma City fans feel about these two guys when they come into town playing for the enemy?
JAS: This question is difficult for me to answer since I am not an OKC native and I've never been inside the Chesapeake arena, so accept my words with that caveat. What I do know is that most stories and reports I read tell me that aside from the 48 minutes that the game is going on, Griffin and Paul are still very much a part of OKC's connection to the pro game.
That said, I think the fans really love rooting against the two, and it isn't difficult to see why. Griffin is a crushing presence both figuratively and literally (see: Perkins, Kendrick) and his aggressive play can cause opponents' fans to throw things at a wall. The Thunder too have an athletic power forward in Serge Ibaka, but he does not come close to possessing the frenetic energy that Griffin has, and so it is always difficult to figure out a way to marginalize Griffin.
The thing that I love the most about Paul while simultaneously hate about watching him go against the team I root for is that he will use any opportunity that is available to him to gain an advantage. This is what I wrote a year ago, and I still feel the same way:
It is maddening to watch him go against the team you cheer for, because Paul is out on the court trying to exploit any advantage or edge that presents itself. He punches, he pushes, he flops, he complains, he talks trash, and he does it all some more. He also doesn't care what you think. He'll keep doing all those things because he is convinced it gives his team an edge to win games. And yet, I can't help but like him, because I wish Westbrook (and actually all point guards in the league) played more that way. In fact, Westbrook does play that way whenever he goes up against Paul, because Paul brings it out of people. You could say that Paul raises the collective level of BOTH teams.
Needless to say, I love CP3. Except at 8PM ET tonight.
SP: The Thunder are awfully good, there's no denying that. They have the league's most efficient offense, and while the defense isn't great, it's better than average, which seems like plenty when the offense is that good. What, if any, are this team's weaknesses? Don't worry -- your secret is safe with me.
JAS: Yes, safe with you and your legions of Clippers fans and the entire social network. I am unafraid.
As I alluded to above, the team's biggest weakness is in thinking that the secret to their season lies in who they play, rather than how they play. I have no doubt that OKC will be ready to run tonight against your Clippers, but what about Friday's game against the Timberwolves, which is the game in between tonight and Heat night on Sunday?
From a pure mechanics standpoint, the Thunder still generally struggle in two areas, and neither one has to do with their semi-circumspect offense:
1) Defensive rebounding - The Thunder front line is quite big and athletic. Between Perkins, Ibaka, and Durant, OKC has three men who can grab double digit rebounds on any given night. The problem is, because they are all pretty athletic, they often abandon sound rebounding techniques and rely on their physical skills. As a result, we often watch them give up double-digit offensive rebounds to much weaker teams like the 76ers (13 ORB) and the Cavaliers (21 ORB). Offensive rebounding is the easiest way for a weaker team to stay competitive against a superior team, and often the Thunder have found themselves in taut games against weaker teams because of this reality. On top of that, bad defensive rebounding means that strong defensive effort gets erased.
2) Perimeter defense - Aside from OKC's general inability to stay focused for prolonged stretches, this facet is the biggest point of worry. We saw it in the first Thunder-Clippers game (LA shot 13-25 from 3-point range) and in the last two games OKC has lost to the Spurs. The Thunder simply do not play sound fundamental perimeter defense.
To be sure, today's rules make it difficult to really stay in front of quick guards anymore, but this is only part of OKC's problem. Too often they take over-aggressive positions, take bad defensive postures, and allow the dribble-drive to get into the lane far too easy. Ibaka has been on a block party this season, but one of the reasons why is because the ball keeps getting driven to the rim. And if it doesn't wind up at the rim, it ends up in the corner for open 3-pointers.
So watch for these two things tonight - if the Clippers can continue to force OKC to struggle in these two areas, the Thunder are going to have a difficult time stopping the Clipper offense.
So now we know how to beat the Thunder. But you can't tell anyone else. I promised J.A. we'd keep it a secret.