Oklahoma City Thunder

Thunder Defense Needs a Resurrection to Save the Series

Zachary Low


After falling to 2-0 on the first round playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Oklahoma City Thunder is just two more losses away from a third consecutive first-round exit. Many fans have already written the team off, and who can blame them after the pitiful performance in Game 2.

The Thunder shot a historically bad 5-for-33 from three in Game 1, only to follow it up with a 5-for-28 performance. While the Thunder’s three-point shooting has been pretty awful for the entire season outside of a 12-game stretch that gave fans hope of a turnaround, the 10-for-61 statistic through the first game of the first round is simply inexcusable.

The Thunder’s three-point shooting has cost them games, and a lot of fingers are pointing at that as the cause for these two losses, but the problems go far deeper than shots not falling.

During the Thunder’s 12-game stretch from January 19th to February 11th, they went 11-1 and shot 44.1% on 31.3 attempts from three. This mark put OKC among the league’s best shooting from deep, and Paul George was a big part of that. Then the All-Star Break, and all of a sudden, George couldn’t hit much of anything, and neither could the Thunder as a team.

Taking a deeper look into the numbers, it seems that while Oklahoma City benefited from the higher volume of three-point makes, other areas suffered. As the Thunder saw rapid improvement shooting from beyond the arc, their ability to create chaos and force turnovers seemingly dwindled.

Time Period3P%StealsOpp. Turnovers+/-
Oct. 16th to Jan. 18th33.1%10.318.0+4.6
Jan. 19th to Feb. 11th44.1%9.915.7+8.9
Feb. 12th to April 17th33.5%7.415.0-1.1

While it can be easy to pick and choose stats and manipulate numbers to prove a point, this seems more like a case of one produces another as opposed to coincidental correlation. As the Thunder became comfortable with knocking down shots and beating teams by a wider margin during that 12-game stretch, the defense began to mentally—and phyically—relax, perhaps because it felt like it was not needed.

Fast forward to a couple of months later, and OKC is still reeling from the results. It’s hard to say where the Thunder would be had Paul George not suffered the initial shoulder injury. Perhaps they would have continued hitting threes at a high rate, which would have allowed the defense to get back into that higher level of play that was on display through the first half of the season.

Regardless, now is not the time to play “what if” with different scenarios. The fact of that matter is that Oklahoma City is down 2-0 in the first round to a very good Portland team, in spite of being down Jusuf Nurkic. The key to turning this series around is going to be the defense, and while it has been decent through the first two games, it has simply not been good enough. Now is the time for the Thunder defense to come back to life, so to speak, and if it does not, Oklahoma City could be done with the 2018-19 NBA season as early as Sunday evening.

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