OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder have a problem. That goes without saying for a 5-10 team.
There are factors aplenty: The schedule, new faces learning to play with one another, young players being thrust into bigger responsibilities for longer periods of time. A team with one of these disadvantages could find themselves stumbling out of the gate — unless you’re Portland and you traded for Hassan Whiteside.
But those are factors that typically age well. Schedules go from tough to soft. New faces become familiar and young guys grow up. The specter hanging over the Thunder in the majority of their losses is the quarter after halftime.
“We don’t necessarily have a large margin for error,” Billy Donovan said following the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday. “It seems like a lot of these games, we’re playing from behind. But we fight and compete and these guys give themselves a chance.“
Of the Thunder’s 10 losses, five of those saw OKC jog into the locker room with a lead at halftime with an average margin of just over four points. In those third quarters, the Thunder were outscored by an average of nearly 11 points. For perspective, the average NBA game in 2019-20 is decided by just over a single point.
“I’d be interested to see what our minus is in the (third) quarter,” Chris Paul said in the locker room Friday. “It’s been a determining factor in our games.”
The Thunder rank 28th in the association in third quarter scoring margin at -4.8. That ties them with 7-8 Sacramento and fellow 5-10 homeowner Memphis. Oklahoma City finds themselves behind Trae Young’s 4-12 Atlanta Hawks and Blake Griffin’s 5-11 Detroit Pistons.
What does this tell us? Even bad teams aren’t that far away from the middle-of-the-pack teams or even some of the good teams on any given night. There isn’t a Golden State or Miami superteam ruling the league with an iron fist. Parody reigns.
“After 82 games, last year, the net ratings of teams,” Donovan said. “Teams ten to twenty-five, or ten to thirty, their net ratings are probably two possessions away from each other. But you’d sit there and say that certain teams are way, way away from other teams.”
Donovan is right. Teams in the middle of the league are fairly even. Since the 2010-11 season, teams ranked 10th to 25th in net rating have been separated by a rating margin of 6.6.
In terms of net rating, Oklahoma City ranks the highest (14th) among teams below .500 at -0.4. The Phoenix Suns sit above them with an 8-8 record and a net rating of 2.9. The Washington Wizards are just below OKC at -1.0. The margin for error that Donovan refers to is razor thin with this team.
Can the Thunder figure out their third quarter woes?
“I don’t know if we need to come out earlier to get loose or something,” Paul said. “It’s stupid but we have to figure it out.”
In a perfect world, if Paul and OKC figures it out, that will result in more wins. Great, more short term success. As long as Paul is here, the only player qualified to lead a team beyond its flaws, the Thunder can right the ship.
“(With) Chris, he’ll figure it out for us.” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said on Sunday.
“I think it’s just discipline and us just wanting to do it like so many other things in the game. It’s one of those things you can’t teach it or practice it, you’ve just got to want to do it and do it.”
Donovan believes the Thunder have improved their third quarter woes. In some ways they have.
The last time Oklahoma City were outscored by double digits in the third quarter was the loss in Indiana. You may remember that game being over from the jump, but the Thunder were only down 10 at halftime — Pacers beat OKC 34-20 in the third.
But don’t hold your breath for the Thunder to figure out some type of way to fix this problem in practice.
“We do try to put them in situations (playing with leads in practice),” Donovan said on Sudnay. “It’s just probably not the length and duration of playing for 10 minutes and going into the locker room and letting them sit there for 15 minutes then trying to come back out and kind of restart back up. You just don’t have time to do that,
“But I think these guys are professional, they’ve been around the game long enough to know that you just got to be better in those areas.”
It would appear the Thunder are going to rely on reps amongst the team and chemistry to avoid or outlast teams in these competitive games. It is a typical elixir to this problem but does not guarantee flipping the script.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. For Sooner fans, you can also listen to the “Inside OU” podcast with John Hoover, Rufus Alexander and Brady. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports