NBA

Thunder Week in Review: Are the Thunder Turning it Around in Clutch Situations?

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 10: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder puts up a shot over Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on October 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Thunder Week in Review: Are the Thunder Turning it Around in Clutch Situations?

As if it hadn’t vanished when the Thunder (rather predictably) struggled out of the gate, the honeymoon period for OKC’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony has long been over by now, mid-December.

And while saying the Thunder have it figured it would be an exaggeration, they are, to a degree, sorting through some of the fundamental flaws that took them out of games in October and November.

Carmelo and clutch woes

The Thunder still aren’t blowing anybody out (well, besides Golden State…), and that’s a little concerning. However, earlier in the season, the popular narrative for this team went something like this: “yes, they’re losing games they shouldn’t, but they’ve all been close.

Now, the Thunder and Billy Donovan are learning how to close games with each other. It hasn’t often been pretty — three overtimes in Philly, a comeback win against a depleted Nuggets team, late free throws against Indy — but the result still counts the exact same.

Through November, the Thunder’s record in clutch situations was 1-9.

In December, they’ve gone 6-1.

What changed?

For one, the Thunder are figuring out a hierarchy, something it took the latest and greatest iteration of the Heat the better part of a regular season and a postseason to figure out comfortably.

Check out the usage rate (a percentage of possessions a player ends by shot, free throw, or turnover) data from earlier in the season to now confirms this hunch:

Even Raymond Felton’s usage rate has been higher than Melo’s in the last dozen games! (Which, as the leader of the second unit, makes sense. He’s not deferring to Westbrook and George for shots.)

Although there are games when he gets his shots up (this is Melo we’re talking about, after all), he’s taken a clear backseat to Westbrook and George.

Take this for example: in Monday’s victory over the Denver Nuggets, Melo only took six shots. He’s only done that six times in his entire career — and half of those came in single-digit efforts. You can see for yourself here.

For perspective, here are a few things that have happened more regularly than Melo taking six or fewer shots in that time span:

  • Kendrick Lamar studio releases
  •  Oklahoma Football New Year’s Six bowl game appearances
  • Harry Potter feature films
  • Jerry Ramsey’s children (working on confirming this one)

Hell, I’ve been broken up with more times since 2003 — when Melo was drafted — than instances where he’s taken less than six shots.

And just by the eye test alone, it’s been obvious that Melo has been taking himself out of games a bit. The threat is still there — and no other team would be foolish enough to leave him open from the perimeter — but he’s now, effectively, a decoy.

In fact, Melo spoke on that matter after their victory over the Nuggets:

“A lot of times, my man is not leaving me. Opposing teams, coaches’ defensive schemes is telling them to always keep a body on me…as a result of that, me being a decoy opens it up for a lot of people.”

So, like Julio Jones with turf toe, Melo has been relegated to a decoy. Never mind that he draws the line at coming off of the bench…

As far as decoys go, though, Anthony is a pretty damn good one. And you know he’ll always be ready to take a crunch time look if Westbrook decides to give the ball up.

It was never the most natural marriage of basketball forces, but this may be the way forward, however unconventional it may be.

PG businesslike despite shooting struggles

Paul George has been getting the looks that were advertised back in June, even before the Thunder landed another potent floor-spacer in Carmelo Anthony.

He just hasn’t been knocking them down. It’s mystifying, to be quite honest. Excluding the season where he played just six games after returning from the brutal leg injury suffered in a Team USA scrimmage, this is George’s worst shooting season of his career — PG’s knocking down only 40% of his field goal attempts.

He’s only eclipsed 50% shooting in eight of the 28 games he’s suited up for OKC.

The simple explanation is that George still isn’t quite comfortable with his cohorts Westbrook and Anthony.

But I keep hearing one thing from basketball types who are much smarter than I am, and it’s starting to make sense. Perhaps he’s too open.

Think about it: before Oklahoma City, PG’s best running partner was Danny Granger. Granger was a fine player, but he was no Russell Westbrook in terms of pure dynamism. Nobody is.

PG isn’t used to getting the looks that he gets as a secondary ball-handler because he’s never been the secondary ball-handler. Crazy, right?

It’s hard to believe that a consistent offensive force like George won’t eventually figure it out — hell, he’s made a lot of money by putting the ball through the bottom of the net. These things regress to the mean — meaning that PG should, eventually, get his oomph back.

And while national publications had already traded him (looking at you, Bleacher Report), PG has remained, to his credit, exceptionally business-like with the media.

“I want to put everything into this and see where that takes us. I’m not giving up; I’m not giving in. I want to give this thing everything I have and we’ll see where it goes,” George told Bleacher Report.

“We all enjoy playing with one another. This could possibly be me being here for multiple years. But…I’m not going to just throw it in and be like, ‘No, I’m done with this.’ We’ve got a long, long, long season ahead of us. And I’m committed to that.”

If basketball truly is 90% mental like the lay wisdom says, then PG is approaching it the correct way. Then it’s only a matter of time until he starts knocking down shots.

Thunder ‘City’ Edition Uniforms

The Nike train stops for nobody. We got a (very poorly shot) look earlier in the week at the Thunder’s next alternate uniform thanks to NBA 2K18’s propensity to leak upcoming uniforms.

Now, it appears that the City edition has made it to at least one store shelf and…it’s something.

My New Year’s resolution is to be nicer, so I’ll refrain from commenting on these in this space.

See my thoughts (and let me know yours!) @mattravis on Twitter.

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