Three days after surrendering a 23-point second quarter lead to the San Antonio Spurs in a three-point loss, Oklahoma City knew it had some work to do. The Thunder started off tonight’s matchup with the Pelicans in New Orleans much like they started in San Antonio on Friday night. It took Oklahoma City only four minutes to jump out to a 17-2 lead, and the jokes started coming on social media as to whether or not the Thunder would be able to maintain.
Oklahoma City would extend the lead to 29-10 with 4:23 left in the first quarter, but that was plenty of time for New Orleans to cut into the deficit. Russell Westbrook finished the first quarter with six points, five assists, and five rebounds; Paul George was 3/3 from three for nine points to go along with three steals, and Carmelo Anthony had five points, two rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Despite an impressive first quarter by the starters, the Pelicans were able to keep it somewhat close, finishing the period on a 14-4 run. After 12 minutes, Oklahoma City led 33-24.
The second quarter is where the Thunder has been known to melt down, and it looked like that would be the case again tonight. New Orleans continued its run, eventually tying it up at 35-35 with 9:34 to go until halftime. A minute later, the Pelicans would take the lead, and it looked like the Thunder was going to roll over again. Oklahoma City fought back, however, and despite a number of whistles against them, the defense stayed active by grabbing a total of 11 first half steals. On top of the defense, the Thunder offense kept things going to take a 65-57 lead into the locker room at the half.
Like so many other third quarters this season, the Thunder came out flat, and by the end of the period, the Pelicans had capitalized. After trading points for the first seven minutes of the quarter, DeMarcus Cousins rebounded the ball after a Thunder miss, and then he immediately elbowed Russell Westbrook in the head.
The elbow would earn Cousins a flagrant 2 and an automatic ejection, and right when the Thunder seemed like they would be able to take advantage of the situation, everything seemed to fall apart. The Pelicans would outscore the Thunder 15-9 for the rest of the quarter, which was highlighted by an Anthony Davis tip-in at the buzzer. After 36 minutes, New Orleans would hold an 87-86 lead over Oklahoma City.
The Pelicans kept their intensity up to start the fourth as the Thunder offense could not hit, and the defense struggled to get stops. New Orleans jumped out to a 93-87 lead just three minutes into the period, and with 5:13 to go in the game, the Thunder faced their largest deficit of the night at 102-94. Oklahoma City would not get any closer than four the rest of the way, and when the final buzzer sounded, the Thunder were on the low side, losing to the Pelicans 107-114.
3 Quick Thoughts
- Offensive Identity is a Problem: In the first eight minutes of the game, the offense was on fire. The Thunder held a 29-10 lead, and everything seemed to be going right. Even as the Pelicans started hitting shots, Oklahoma City still managed to score 65 points in the first half. In the second half, however, the Thunder scored only 42 points. Russell Westbrook finished the game with his fifth triple-double of the season with 22 points, 16 rebounds, and 12 assists; Paul George had 26 points by going 6/10 from three, as well as five rebounds and four assists; Carmelo Anthony had 19 points and 9 rebounds; and Steven Adams had 15 points on 7/9 shooting. The issue, specifically late in the game, was shot selection. Westbrook and Anthony combined for 13/38 (34.2%) from the floor, including an abysmal 4/16 (25%) from three. In the first half, the offense was full of ball movement and finding the best look, whereas in the second half, there were too many possessions that featured a single pass, too much dribbling, and a bad shot. Paul George had the hot hand, but for some reason Westbrook and Anthony kept taking awful shots. That cannot continue if these guys want to start winning games.
- The Defense is Good Early, Bad Late: For the season, the Thunder has the best first half defense in the NBA, and it’s not even really close. In the second half, however, the Thunder is near the bottom, and when it comes to clutch time, they are the absolute worst. Whether it comes down to poor effort or a break in mental toughness, something has to give as the game goes on. There is no excuse for a team this talented to perform at such a high level early in the game, and then completely meltdown at the end game after game after game. A big part of the defensive letdown in the fourth quarter tonight was New Orleans’s ability to get to the free throw line. Anthony Davis alone shot 8/10 (80%) from the free throw line in the fourth, and it absolutely killed the Thunder. Oklahoma City will see their biggest test on Wednesday when the Thunder host the Warriors, and if the Thunder don’t come ready to play a full 48 minutes, it could get ugly.
- Is Coaching the Problem? 16 games in, it’s getting hard to say, “It’s too early to panic; chemistry takes time.” While some hiccups were expected, some of the consistent problems seem like they’re not going to be solved, and when it comes down to it, someone has to take the blame. Some of the issues with the Thunder are an inability by the bench to play, a lack of consistency from the starters when they play together, and lineup decisions that leave many people scratching their heads. One thing is for certain, though: if this team doesn’t start winning soon, Billy Donovan’s seat is going to get warm really quickly.
The Moment We’ve All Been Waiting For…
Whether Thunder fans like to admit it or not, all of Oklahoma holds its breath when the Golden State Warriors come to town. The first matchup of the season between the Thunder and the Warriors is on Wednesday in Oklahoma City, and while it will not have the same amount of spark and controversy as last season, it will undoubtedly have some exciting moments. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, and the game will be televised on ESPN and FSOK. The game will also be broadcast on the radio at WWLS 98.1 FM the Sports Animal.
Article written by Zack Low. Follow @TheThunderGuys on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.