Thunder Big 3: Fitter, Happier, More Productive

— November 16th 2017

This week in Thunder, we look at some encouraging offensive developments.

By David Brandon

Welcome to the Thunder Big 3! Each week I’m going to be breaking down three of the trends that we’ve been seeing from the Thunder, both things that are going well and things that aren’t going so well.

You and Whose Army

After the dispiriting Denver Nuggets loss, it was obvious that something had to change with the Thunder offense. The Thunder slept through the Sacramento Kings loss, then got beaten by the Nuggets too right afterwards, capping a 4-game slide that had some drawing comparisons to the underachieving “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Nash/Bryant/Howard Lakers.

After the game, the locker room doors stayed closed.

And stayed closed.

And stayed closed.

Rosalyn Gold-Onwude on Twitter

It took the OKC Thunder 36 minutes after the game ended to open the lockerroom to media. Team held a discussion after losing 4 straight.

Things had to change. And change they did, driven by a newly-rejuvenated Paul George, who was a man on fire this week.

Some of it can definitely be attributed to bad defense (particularly in the Mavs game) or just a player getting hot. But going back and looking at the film, here are a couple of things that immediately jumped out at me:

1) The Thunder were trying to get Paul George the ball in rhythm, on the move, in positions he likes. This is massive.

Watch this nice baseline screen action that pops PG13 loose:

(Side note: this is a variation on one of my favorite Thunder plays involving a guard screening for a wing in the corner cutting along the baseline.)

He’s in motion, in rhythm, and practically shooting the ball before he gets it. Paul George is an exceptional off-ball player, and setting him up like this has to be part of the recipe for a successful Thunder offense. Get him running through a screen or two and catching the ball on the hop and you have a superstar who resembles a Super Saiyan version of JJ Redick—a great complement to Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony’s games.

2) Paul George was getting the ball from people not named Russell Westbrook.

This isn’t a knock on Westbrook at all. He’s a transcendent player, and the unquestioned leader of the Thunder team. But for this team to take the next step, the offense cannot run entirely through the callused hands of the Brodie.

Going through the film of George’s last few games, the thing that stood out when he was getting the ball is just how many people were making an effort to find him. Westbrook, Grant, Anthony, Felton, Johnson (more on him in a minute)…the ball was pinging around to different players, and they were finding each other naturally. With the main offensive cogs playing more freely, all of a sudden things opened up.

(Dwight Powell, why are you dropping down to the free throw line against Paul George?)

I don’t know where the axiom originally came from, but the old idea that the ball finds energy is one that holds true, and one that the Thunder need to embrace. Stagnant isolations tend to drag down the energy of the team if often repeated. There’s a time and a place for isolation—it doesn’t need to be a dirty word! But it can’t be your bread and butter.

Not every team has to be the Golden State Warriors—that intersection of ball-handling and passing talent across the entire team, unlocked by superlative shooting, isn’t something that can be replicated across most teams. You have to play to your personnel. But the movement and energy that the Thunder have shown the last few games has paid dividends in increased effectiveness.

They’re likely never going to be a high-assist or a high-pass team. But what’s been installed is working. Here’s hoping it lasts.

Katamari Dakari

Katamari Damacy – opening video – PS2 videogame

The opening video of the PS2 game ‘Katamari Damacy’ Converted directly from the game’s video file…

Steven Adams suffered a calf contusion in Denver, and he’s been out for a few games. He looks pretty close to coming back, but despite fears that his absence would cause problems for a lacking Thunder interior defense, his position has been covered adequately by rookie Dakari Johnson.

Johnson’s an old-school big man with fairly slow feet, but he sets crushing screens, rolls hard to the rim, and has a surprising level of offensive awareness. He’s also a much better passer than his position and age would indicate—in fact, during his time with the Oklahoma City Blue D-League affiliate team and the Thunder Summer League team, Johnson had the green light to bring the ball up the floor at the point for at least a few possessions per game.

Though he’s not a huge difference-maker, he’s made some key contributions this week, including this backbreaking jump shot in crunch time against the Clippers:

The very fact that Westbrook is even looking for him in that situation tells you something. Westbrook has certain guys that he tends to rely on—guys who he knows are going to finish the play when he passes it to them. Abrines was one last year. Johnson, it appears, could be another one.

His numbers don’t jump off the page (especially the rebounding), but Johnson’s one to keep an eye on. He was a D-League All-Star last year, and if he continues to develop he could continue to see minutes backing up Steven Adams. Though a prolonged Adams absence is still cause for queasiness among Thunder fans, Johnson’s shown enough that it’s not an indicator of impending doom.

Hey There, It’s Your Birthday

Fred Katz on Twitter

Paul George with he ultimate walk-off moment. Did you get Russ anything for his birthday? “I got him 37”

The Week in Review

The Thunder lost in rough fashion against the Nuggets, but bounced back against the Clippers, Mavericks, and Bulls. They look like they’re starting to find their feet. Though it was a soft schedule this week, there’s a lot to be positive about headed into next week. Check back next Thursday for another edition of the Thunder Big 3.

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