The Thunder play just their second road game of the season and will make their first meaningful road trip of the season with back-to-back games against the Clippers tonight and Golden State on Thursday.
Here are three things to think about and watch for in these next two games:
1. Russell Westbrook
Sure. Seems simple enough and it seems applicable to any and all Thunder games moving forward, but what we see from Westbrook tonight could shape the way he handles the rest of the season. That significant? Yes. Here’s why:
Westbrook has been amazing the first three games of the season – all Thunder wins – but none of those three teams Westbrook and Oklahoma City beat are going to the playoffs or have any real future this season. The Clippers and Golden State do.
If we see Westbrook have the mentality he needs to win these games by himself, the Thunder are in trouble. If he feels the need to shoot, try and take over and justify to himself that he has no help and has to go solo, it won’t be a good result. Now, certainly Westbrook is good enough to win games all alone. He’s essentially done that in two of the three games this season, but that formula, while exciting to watch and while we will watch in amazement, isn’t sustainable. Better the Thunder learn that early as opposed to falling for fools’ gold and believing Westbrook’s heroics are the only answer.
A season ago, this approach had more ability to work because the Thunder had two players who could virtually take over. Now, they have one. Yes, there are other pieces, but good teams will throw all their effort into realizing this. That means, Westbrook will have to fight the feeling to force things. Real or imagined, Westbrook has to realize this team isn’t ultimately going to be successful if he takes it all onto his shoulders. The Clippers and the Warriors will be too good to allow Westbrook to win on his own, so Westbrook needs to differ. At least some of the time.
2. Outside chance?
The Thunder come into these two games ranked 23rd in the league on 3-pointers made per game and ranked 22nd on 3-point percentage. Yikes.
That’s fine, if you’re just trying to sneak into the playoffs, but 29 percent shooting on 3-pointers isn’t good enough to challenge the best teams in the league. Meanwhile, the Thunder, at least in the immediate short-term have done nothing to help their case to improve on this important aspect.
Tuesday, the Thunder traded Ersan Ilyasova to the 76ers. Now, Ilyasova isn’t a great 3-point shooter, but he’s capable. He made just one-of-four tries this season, but at least the threat was there. Now, moving forward, considering coach Billy Donovan doesn’t seem interested in playing Anthony Morrow, the Thunder are virtually toothless from the perimeter. The result of that could be dangerous in the short and in the long run, considering a lack of productivity from the outside means more ganging up on Westbrook, who will see less and less driving lanes if no defense ever respects the Thunder’s outside shooting.
So far, who do the Thunder have that scares you from the outside? Westbrook is at 44 percent so far this season, which is impressive, That’s about it.
Look for the Clippers and the Warriors to clog the middle, daring Westbrook and whoever else feels like it, to shoot from the outside. Isn’t that the approach you would use? Until the Thunder find an outside shooter, or start playing Morrow meaningful minutes, every team will use that approach.
Since July 4, there has been a text message exchange, numerous passive-aggressive conversations, long expose pieces in all sorts of different publications and even apologies as late as it may be.
But come Thursday night, I’ll be looking forward to the pre-game meeting between Westbrook and Durant. To me, it’s the ultimate reality TV. How will these two behave when all the cameras are on them and the two are actually sharing the same building? Can’t wait.
In addition, no matter if there’s a hug, handshake or no embrace at all, the game should be a spectacle, if you watch nothing but Durant v. Westbrook. Chances are Westbrook will do everything he can to drive at Durant. Keep in mind, Westbrook plays with the burden of real and imagined grudges he carries around like a backpack. He’s going after Durant, to make a point, to make a statement, anything.
Should be some great drama.