Friday, March 4, 2016

Okla City Thunder. Folding?

No doubt the Oklahoma City Thunder remain a very good team in the NBA. A 42-19 record says so. But of late, they seem to be teetering, having lost 6 of their last 8. And a few of those losses came from late game collapses. Consider---

At home, about a week ago, the Thunder had the mighty Golden State Warriors on the ropes for the majority of the game. They had them, they had them -- and then they didn't have them. The Thunder totally botched the waning seconds of regulation time allowing GS to send it into overtime, which the Warriors would win 121-118 on a last-second bomb from -- who else? -- Steph Curry. A loss that should have been a win.

Then the lowly Sacramento Kings. A win.

Off to LA to face the Clippers. The Thunder had them all but put away as well. They led by 17 points late in the third quarter. Then they folded like a house of cards allowing the Clips to storm back and win 103-98. Another almost sure win turned into another loss.

Just last night, @ Golden State, a formidable place for a visiting team to play (the Warriors are undefeated at home so far this year), the Thunder had the champs on the ropes again. Up by 9 late in the third quarter. Then another El Foldo. GS would win 121-106. That's a 24 point swing in a little over one quarter of action. It seems as if, at this point in the long NBA season, the Thunder run out of gas after three quarters of play against good teams.

Perhaps that shouldn't be totally surprising. After all, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have played a ton of minutes. Sure, they're both fantastic talents, but they have limitations as well. Said limitations, in turn, affect the whole team as the season heads down the stretch. This manifests itself in a couple different ways.

First, 82 games is a lot. Throw in the incredible amount of travel any NBA player endures on road trips, sometimes including coast to coast and back to back games, and they need a break once in a while. Especially during the course of the games themselves.

Second, while many "experts" will say the Thunder is loaded with talent on their roster, it oftentimes doesn't look that way. For lack of a better word, Durant and Westbrook are basically ballhogs. They take the majority of the shots and score the majority of the points. That's fine -- to a point. And then it becomes counter-productive.

Oftentimes when either has the ball, their teammates stop moving, expecting the "star" to make yet another superb play. This is not good team basketball at the highest level. Two guys, no matter how good they are, cannot carry a team for a whole season, let alone deep into the playoffs, much less become champions, without sufficient help from their supporting cast. We often hear about the stars and their stats, and see endless replay highlights of their feats, but what we don't hear much about is the other 7-8 guys on the team that are plugging away to make it all possible.

Like Kobe Bryant over the years, Durant and Westbrook all to often revert back to "street hoops". All kinds of moves against single, double, even triple coverage, but you just know they're going to find a way to either shoot or drive to the basket eventually. They want to be showmen rather than team players for the greater good of the club. Hey, if the Thunder indeed has all this other talent on their roster -- then why not utilize it more than they do?

It was interesting to read the lips of Thunder head coach Billy Donovan after a failed play late in the game against the Warriors. Coming out of a time-out, he had drawn up the play he wanted. In went the ball. Out went Donovan's plan. Back to street hoops. Donovan yelled, "That's not what I drew up on the board!!!". As in, what the hell is going on with you guys?

Sure, the Thunder are a lock to make the playoffs. They might even enjoy home court advantage for the first couple rounds. And again, they're pretty damn good.

But it will be interesting to see how they play in the final month of the regular season. Their schedule isn't exactly a cakewalk. They have a couple more games against the Clips, a couple with the Trailblazers (no slouches), a couple with Houston (ditto), three against the San Antonio Spurs, and a game at Toronto. The Raptors are quietly leading their own division and just might be the best team in the East (with Cleveland experiencing some turmoil lately).

Plus, 7 out of the Thunder's final 9 regular season games will be on the road, where they've shown a propensity to fold late in games recently. It's going to be a tough month leading up to the playoffs.

How they will fare is anybody's guess. Will they right their ship, get on a roll and storm into the playoffs? Maybe.

Or are their fades of late an omen of a total collapse down the road? We'll see.

Yours truly has maintained all along the Thunder made a fatal error when it came to the possibility of winning a championship by letting point guard supreme James Hardin get away to the Houston Rockets in free agency not long ago.

Yeah, Hardin's a younger version dead ringer for Grady of the old Sanford and Son sitcom, but the dude's got some serious game on the hardwood. What were they thinking in Thunderville to allow that to happen?

Then again, maybe Grady, sorry, James got tired of watching the Kevin and Russell show too. And if you're NOT going to win a championship, the booming metropolis of Houston probably looks a whole lot more attractive than his former home. All kinds of things going on. And what do they do back in Okie land when the Thunder bows out again? Watch for tornadoes? Plant the crops? Hope another one of those pesky droughts doesn't happen?

Hmm. Yeah, I can see his point.

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