OKC Thunder have one bad habit to break down the stretch

As the OKC Thunder began the stretch run it was clear there was one glaring issue the team absolutely needed to fix.

Whether it’s a bad habit or a matter of focus the way the OKC Thunder starts games and how they hit the hardwood coming out of the half has been their greatest weakness.

After a tough January schedule, there was some minor slippage by the club which was easily explained given the wear and tear. Fatigue levels hit a peak with the eye test providing evidence to that effect at the end of the month. Although wins were collected, a few games weren’t won as easily as they were prior to the jam-packed January itinerary.

The clutch time kings sure have made for an entertaining season. Double deficit comebacks, close games, and ultra competitive matches are thrilling but the team needs to keep that power as it’s secret weapon. Constantly being in the position to have to raise the level in the closing minutes can take a physical toll and eventually backfire.

Closer than necessary victories to sub .500 seeds and a loss in clutch time occurred in the games leading up to the break. Much like that little light begins to flash on a car dashboard to remind it’s time for an oil change these games served up a similar warning to the team.

What makes this situation even more confusing is aside from adding Dennis Schroder to the closing lineup the players on the court are the same. And, the person getting subbed out is a defensive specialist (Terrance Ferguson or Lu Dort).

The break offered time to examine the data for further insights on these two frames.

Only four teams score fewer points in the opening quarter. The Magic (25.5), Warriors (25.6) and Kings/Bulls (26.1) ranked as the bottom four teams. The Thunder, Pacers, Hornets, and Knicks are tied in 26th with 26.3 points. Of those eight clubs other than the Thunder only the Magic and Pacers are in the playoff mix.

Moving to the second quarter the Thunder rank 12th with 28.2 points scored. It’s a tad confusing why the Thunder improves so dramatically. Perhaps it speaks to the prowess of Dennis Schroder, the improvement of the bench overall or the fact they are facing other reserve units during this quarter.

Although many fans believe the third quarter is an offensive based problem it’s not as bad as the first. OKC ranks 14th in this frame scoring 27.9 points. The larger issue tied to the third is when they also have a bad start to the match (as well as the obvious issue noted below).

As for the final frame, OKC also ranks 14th in the fourth quarter with 27.1 points scored.

Clearly, there is another side to the equation — DEFENSE and how many points the opponent scores.

The numbers through each quarter again deliver the equivalent of that flashing dashboard light:

  • first quarter: 27.2 (13th)
  • second quarter: 26.6 (6th)
  • third quarter: 29.1 (tied 25th)
  • fourth quarter: 24.7 (2nd)

The key takeaway from the defensive side of the court is it reveals why the third quarter is a problem. While the Thunder score more themselves they also allow teams to score the most after the halftime break. Similarly, to no one’s surprise, the Thunder lock it down in the final frame

Obviously, the clutch is when the team excels — or the final five minutes of matches that are within five points.

Although simplistic the fix is obvious…

Start games with energy and aggression on the offensive side of the court and increase the defensive focus coming out of the halftime break.

The first game back from the break the Thunder faced the West’s second-seeded Nuggets. A team the club had defeated once in the last nine meetings.

As if the Thunder were reading our minds they jumped on the Nuggets from the tip building a 10 point lead in the quarter. Uncharacteristically they then gave it all back in what is typically their second-best offensive/defensive quarter. Although they allowed Denver to put up 29 points in the third they delivered enough two-way effort to keep the game close and take a one-point lead into their favorite quarter.

Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Next: NBA Power Rankings week 17: Ladder shifts at the break

Moving forward, if the Thunder can work on making this pattern the new norm it will serve them well.

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