Since the All Star break, the Oklahoma City Thunder have gone 0-2 after only losing 12 times in the 55 games prior to the break. Both losses have been at home – the fortress of Chesapeake Arena and although they have been against teams that many consider “contenders” is it a sign that the Thunder are in a slump or are they just two losses in a long season?
It would be easy to suggest that the Thunder have hit a bit of a slump and are rusty after their exceptional first half of the season – much of it short-handed without Russell Westbrook. They limped into the break – barely managing a win over the hapless Los Angeles Lakers and have now lost to the Miami Heat quite convincingly and the Los Angeles Clippers in a shoot out. It would be easy to suggest a slump, but it’s not entirely correct.
Since the All Star break, the Thunder have welcomed back point guard Russell Westbrook. Although a valued member of the squad, there is always going to be a readjustment period when a starter returns for duty. In his absence the Thunder were rolling, largely due to next level performances from Kevin Durant, the improvement of Serge Ibaka and the development of Reggie Jackson. Westbrook’s return though, means that the rotations now have to alter again, players have to adapt to their new and respective roles and the coaching staff also needs to adapt – especially with the restriction on Westbrook’s minutes in the early going.
They ran into a very focused and determined Miami Heat team in their first game after nearly a week away from the floor. LeBron James and the rest of the team clearly hadn’t forgotten the beating they received on their home floor at the hands of the Thunder earlier in the season and were hell-bent on making amends for it. Add to that, the hype and distraction surrounding the return of Russ and incorporating him into the side for the first time since Christmas, the rust that was evident in his game and you can see where things went pear-shaped. You need to be at your best to beat the defending champs, and the Thunder clearly were not.
We have just witnessed the Thunder fall to conference rival the Los Angeles Clippers. Kevin Durant was bask to his dominant best with 42 points and 10 assists, but the Thunder fell short of the mark. Serge Ibaka looked more comfortable, but Russ was still not back to his best (and likely won’t be for at least 2 or 3 weeks) and this time the Thunder had to deal with the absence of starting center and defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins. Rookie Steven Adams got the start and although he had a solid game, trying to adapt against the better teams is always a tough ask.
There is no excuse for the Thunder – these are the games you need to win if you want to solidify yourself as a contender and if you want to keep your lead at the top of the conference. Every team has to make adjustments and it is how well you transition through these changes that tells you where you are at as a team. The Thunder have put together a very good season thus far, but cannot afford to drop too many of these types of games if they want to hold on to the all important home court advantage in the playoffs.
Perkins is likely to miss at least a week with a strained groin and it looks like Adams will start in his place. Russ is going to be better every time he steps on the floor and the rest of the Thunder team will adapt the more game time they get together with the adjusted rotations. That has to start with their next home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland have turned things around since they fired GM Chris Grant and had won 6 straight games before dropping their past two.
You can count on the Thunder to regroup and give their home crowd something to cheer about – that’s what the best teams do. And the Thunder are still one of the leagues best teams.