After finishing my CS final today, I tuned into the Thunder @ 76ers game on ESPN. It was going to be one of those games that I just watch some tidbits during dinner, but I left the TV on anyways. AND GOOD THING I DID. This game was one of the best games I watched this season — with the 76ers re-upping their lifeline 3 times to make 3 overtimes, this was a game my friends and I regret we didn’t make a game-night out of.
To the fans who didn’t tune into this game, the Thunder pulled out an almost comedic victory (Andre Roberson made the exact same under-the-rim shot he didn’t get a foul call on at the end of 2nd overtime) of 119–117. However, beyond the adrenaline rush for the clutch shots made over and over again by both teams, this game really confirms the ESPN talk-show narratives that are out there for me: “The Thunder still haven’t figured out their Big-3 and doesn’t look like they will before the trade deadline” and “the 76ers patiently stockpiling talent over the years is paying its dividends this season”. Even though the Thunder won, it wasn’t a pretty win. And even though the 76ers lost, it was a damn pretty loss.
Really, to me, it’s just pathetic how the Thunder are playing offense right now. On a night that Carmelo Anthony is shooting 64.7% from the field, the Thunder still played bad enough overall to have to contend 3 overtimes with the 76ers, who were absolutely gassed by the end of the 4th quarter. Yes, the rest of the Big-3, Westbrook (10 of 33) and Paul George (8 of 23), both had a rather bricky night, but the Thunder did so many other things right that they clearly were able to put the game away much earlier.
First of all, the Thunder contained Ben Simmons, the 76ers offense facilitator, very well this game. Paul George and Andre Roberson were able to use their length and defensive knowledge to pester Ben Simmons enough. I was amazed that OKC’s defense could get Ben Simmons to turn his back towards the rim to protect the ball and completely lose his attack mode. Ben Simmons still played a great game, but his contribution really died off near the end of regulation. He resorted to feeding Embiid in the post and just letting Embiid go at OKC. With Simmons playing more passively, this put a larger burden on Embiid and took away some of his game. Watching previous games, Embiid is a great pop-out shooter and even second driver. Simmons would often just use a screen to get to the middle, sucking in defenders and kicking it out to Embiid for a shot or second drive. However, with Simmons so afraid of getting the ball stolen by OKC, Embiid was really reduced to his post-game as he cannot create a pull-up shot nor initiate a drive with a defender right in front of him. OKC had less moving offensive pieces to defend and double-teamed Embiid with less risk.
Then, OKC pulled down 18 offensive rebounds, giving them 13 more possessions than the 76ers. Westbrook would just rush into the lane and snatch rebounds away from Robert Covington or JJ Redick who think they have already secured the defensive rebound in their hands. Also, Steven Adams had a great command of space and tapped out multiple loose balls for the team to stir up another attack.
So what was the problem for OKC? With great defense and many more second chance opportunities, why were they struggling so hard to put the game away?
Simply put, tonight they didn’t put the ball in Carmelo’s hands when they should have been. One of the advantages of having a Big-3 is that very rarely will all 3 superstars all have an off-night. I believe this was a paraphrase of a Steve Kerr quote from last year. He said that if Stephen Curry has an off-night, KD will carry the offense; if KD has an off-night, Klay will shoot the lights out; and if Klay has an off-night, you can expect to be Curry out there sinking 3’s. The Thunder, did not employ this very simple concept at all today! Since Westbrook and PG were both having off-nights, the logical thing to do is to put the ball in Melo’s hands more. But the Thunder had Westbrook take 33 shots whereas Melo only took 17… There was a 3 minute stretch in the 4th quarter where I felt like Melo did not the touch the ball at all on offense and it was just Westbrook driving to the rim and missing 2 dunks.
This blatant disregard for the hot hand did not continue after time-outs which leads me to believe OKC has a serious communication issue on offense. This is just me speculating, but is Billy Donovan afraid of telling Westbrook to give up the ball because he is the reigning MVP and OKC’s franchise player? Surely an NBA coach like him would not fail to realize Melo should get the ball more? And then, are Melo and PG uncomfortable telling Westbrook to give them more opportunities on offense because the other NBA stars who moved to new teams adapt to the star who has been there longer and not vice versa (KD adapting to Curry, CP3 adapting to Harden etc.)? Melo in New York would have surely called for ball with such a good shooting night, so what is stopping him from doing so in OKC? I don’t know what it is, but someone from OKC needs to help Westbrook realize that he should not try to do too much when he has so much superstar help around him.
More generally, OKC doesn’t have an offense that connects Westbrook’s capabilities with that of PG and Melo. It is just an absolute shocker to me how OKC’s offense has Melo and PG in their respective baseline corners, waiting for Westbrook to run a pick-n-roll with Steven Adams and go downhill, only to either attempt a lay-up, alley-hoop or kickout to Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson! Yes, you heard me correct. From watching this game, I think Westbrook kicks out more to Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson than PG and Melo. I listened to a podcast criticizing how Billy Donovan is using PG and Melo as spot-up shooters. At this point, if PG and Melo do not get their share of the ball on Westbrook’s drives, they are even less than spot-up shooters… They are teammates appreciating Westbrook’s drives from the baseline.
Maybe Billy Donovan put Melo and PG both on baseline corners because that is the spot most slashers kick out to on a drive to the hoop. So Billy Donovan needs to get Westbrook to realize that Melo and PG are in those corners for a reason. Or he needs to get Roberson and Abrines to set down screens for Melo and PG and have them at the top of the key where Westbrook seems to kick the ball out more.
It seems like these are very simple solutions to OKC’s offense that I am talking about. The truth is, THEY ARE! Which leaves me head-scratching why OKC does not have these simple axioms in place: 1) If you’re going to hero iso-ball, at least give it to the hot-hand. 2) Make sure Westbrook kicks the ball out to Melo or PG on his drives so they can actually do something off the dribble and not just stand around.
It’s pretty late so I’m going to end my first Medium article here. I was going to write about Philadelphia’s side of this game but I guess an OKC rant is enough for today. At this point, I would say the better narrative for OKC is “NBA fans have figured out that Melo and PG are not being fully utilized in the offense. Have Westbrook pass to them more! Period!”
If one truly thinks about it, OKC’s offensive flaws are as simple as that. It’s more a matter of communication and implementing them than anything else. Maybe it’s hard to implement a ball-share system when OKC has been doing a Westbrook-centric offense for so long. Anyhow, good luck OKC, because I really want to see the full potential of your offence :D