Despite Adversity, Oklahoma City Start To Turn It Around

Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s an understatement to say the Oklahoma City Thunder have faced their share of adversity this season as an organisation, adversity which has nothing to do with basketball.

Around a month ago, Monty Williams‘ wife was tragically killed in a car crash. It’s been already decided that Williams understandably will not return to the team this season. Williams has been a calming influence on the Thunder bench and a key confidant of new head coach Billy Donovan, and shares a close relationship with players, particularly Kevin Durant.

Then at the beginning of March, Thunder part owner Aubrey McClendon died in another car crash the day after being indicted on criminal charges. This again hit the city and the team hard, as McClendon was a key figurehead in the Oklahoma City community.

A week later, Dion Waiters‘ brother was fatally shot and killed in Philadelphia. He returned to the team for the recent East Coast road trip, which saw the Thunder go 3-0. Before that, they put the Portland Trail Blazers to the sword, leading by as many as 42 points in a 128-94 win.

The Thunder have faced as much adversity in a season than any team could face, let alone three tragedies in the span of four weeks. They’ve copped criticism after criticism of their defensive and late game struggles, not to mention the constant speculation of Durant’s upcoming free agency.

This recent four-game winning streak, however, may provide a ray of hope amidst what has been a dark period. The on court struggles pale in comparison to what the team is going through off the court, but they remain nevertheless.

The adversity faced may have helped forge a stronger bond between the team, as these types of situations tend to bring a group together rather than tear them apart. Oklahoma City has built a strong, united and ultimately family type culture that has always bonded together. This may now be shown through this recent four-game stretch.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

It is certainly not season defining (yet) and the sample size is small, but that also doesn’t mean this isn’t something of a turning point. Apart from the struggling Sixers, the Thunder have beaten three very good teams. These three teams have also beaten Oklahoma City this season, two of which did it on the Thunder’s home floor.

Portland has been one of the best teams in the league since the All-Star break, and appear to have found their groove under the young leadership of Damian Lillard and the brilliant head coach Terry Stotts. But in this particular game, they were simply no match for the Thunder, who took control late in the first quarter and never looked back.

The Celtics might have been without Jae Crowder (arguably their best player), but had won 14 of 15 games on their home floor. They couldn’t keep up with the Thunder’s offensive firepower, which dropped 130 points on them in the blowout.

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The most recent victory over the Pacers came on a back-to-back in Indiana, a very tough place to win on the road (just ask the Spurs, who were thoroughly outplayed by the Pacers in Indiana only two weeks earlier). They almost blew it late with some typically bad late game execution, but they also managed to build a lead in the fourth quarter, something they’d not been able to do most of the season.

In this four-game span, the numbers are extremely kind to the Thunder and give hope to a fanbase that has lost a little bit of faith in the last month. Whilst the defense has been about the same (103.0 points per 100 possessions compared to 102.9 for the season), it hasn’t really mattered as Oklahoma City’s offense has found its groove.

The Thunder are posting an outrageous 120.4 points per 100 possessions, resulting in a terrific net rating of +17.3. Durant and Russell Westbrook are leading the way, with Westbrook posting a triple double average of 18.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game. He’s been more locked in defensively with less gambling, and the Thunder are posting a defensive rating of 99.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

Durant has been finding his rhythm through this period too, and although his scoring has been down from his lofty standards he’s still averaging 26.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game over that stretch. His turnovers are down from 3.4 to 2.8, something that was important due to them increasing a concerning amount since All Star weekend.

The supporting cast is stepping up and doing their bit over this current stretch, as well. Enes Kanter has been a monster, and continues to dominate under the basket, particularly on the offensive boards. It’s a key part of their offense and can be so potent as the Turkish center can create second chance opportunities with his hustle play. Analysts can criticize his flaws all they like but they do not currently outweigh his strenghs.

Kanter is averaging 18.5 points and 9.0 rebounds (3.5 offensive) in just 23.7 minutes per contest. Donovan has figured out how best to utilise his key strengths. Kanter got his chance in the clutch against the Pacers when Steven Adams was having an injury checked. The Pacers targeted him every single time down the floor defensively, but he was able to create second chance opportunities and put backs. There’s a chance the lead the Thunder created never happens without him.

Randy Foye also found his groove through this recent stretch and may be finding his fit in the Thunder system. Alongside 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists, Foye is putting up 11.3 points per game, shooting 50 percent from deep on 4.5 attempts per game. After some initial struggles, he might be getting back on track.

Anthony Morrow is also hitting his shots (7.3 points per game) and getting some steady minutes (10.2), and Kyle Singler is playing solid defense, although he sat out the win against the Pacers with back soreness. Cameron Payne has also promisingly found his way back into the rotation, and if he starts hitting his shot from deep again, this could add another dynamic to the bench unit.

All this success is also despite the struggles of Dion Waiters and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder are better with Ibaka on the floor offensively by 2.7 points per 100, but the defense is actually 5 points worse. He’s struggling to make an impact under the basket (4.3 rebounds per game), and his constant slumps are starting to become a thing of concern. Steven Adams might be slowly overtaking him as the best defensive big on the roster. Waiters is shooting 42 percent from deep, but the team is 18.8 points better with him on the bench. There’s no coincidence to that in 139 minutes across four games.

Next: Is Enes Kanter the 4th Quarter Solution

This recent stretch does not re-establish the Thunder as a bonafide title contender. There’s no doubting that they have the talent, but doubts have become very much commonplace for many through their recent struggles. They may have now turned the corner though, as they look to put a horror month on and off the court behind them in pursuit of success come playoff time.