Old issues bite the Thunder as offense stalls out late

OKLAHOMA CITY — With 2:17 on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder led the Toronto Raptors by six following a Serge Ibaka free throw. Two possessions in the NBA with more than 120 seconds remaining isn’t all that much, but considering the team with the lead had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the floor, it would seem the Raptors had a serious hill to climb.

Instead, the Thunder scored only one point down the stretch, on a Durant free throw with 14 seconds left, and the Raptors closed on a 12-1 run to moderately stun OKC 103-98.

There are two lines of thought as to what happened:

1. What Durant said: “I don’t think it stagnated. We just missed shots. We were getting downhill, getting to the paint and we just missed shots. Dion [Waiters] missed a nice, wide-open 3. I missed a turnaround on the baseline. Russell missed a few layups getting to the rim. I mean, we make those shots and you say it’s great offense. It’s a make-or-miss league, and we missed ’em and they made ’em.”

2. The Thunder’s crunch-time offense relapsed, falling into that some old siren song of stalled isolations with limited movement, spacing or passing. If you want to reduce it more specifically, Westbrook had 15 assists through three quarters and finished with 16. All that playmaking and passing got shucked when things tightened.

But here’s the thing: It can be a little of both.

The Thunder had some decent shots. Westbrook got to the rim twice and the ball agonizingly leaked off it. Durant missed a difficult turnaround jumper, but it’s one he routinely makes because he’s Kevin Durant, a great basketball player who makes a lot of money because of his ability to make difficult jumpers. Waiters had a clean look from the wing but clanged it off the front of the iron. If those shots go in, the story to write is how the Thunder offense clicked in rhythm at crunch time and Billy Donovan’s new message is winning.

Did Westbrook like the looks? “Yeah,” he said. “Just missed.”

On the other hand, it certainly had the same look and feel of past closing grievances that the Thunder suffered under Scott Brooks. There was a complete predictability about it, with more isolation improv than structure. A perceived reason for the transition to Donovan was the need for a more dynamic approach to late-game situations; whereas under Brooks, the Thunder often sputtered, looking to Westbrook or Durant to do something. And after watching the way the Thunder have finished the past two losses, it is reasonable to raise an eyebrow: new coach, same players, same issue. So who really was at fault here?

There is a third component to all this, however: It’s Nov. 4. That was the Thunder’s fifth game to play under Donovan. No matter how much patience you preach, when there’s a change on the bench, the expectation is instant results — to see something different immediately, ignoring the process it takes to get there. The Thunder have played a certain way for seven seasons — and very successfully so, I might add — so the transformation isn’t happening overnight. It has to happen organically, through trial and error, through success and failure.

Here is one obvious area the Thunder are going to have to address: Durant only took two shots in the fourth quarter. He hit the team’s final field goal with 5:13 left on a pull-up jumper. The other was that missed baseline turnaround with 58 seconds left. He had 27 points on 18 shots but wasn’t much more than a spectator offensively as the lead slipped.

“They did a very good job bringing backside help on Kevin, and sometimes you’ve got to pass the basketball,” Donovan said. “With the players we have on our team, I don’t think you want to shoot out of double-teams. It’s the quality of shots you get. It’s not always going to be Kevin. I thought Kevin played the right way and did a good job, but we certainly need to find ways to keep him involved and do some things to continually get him shots, but when they do bring two people to him he’s a willing passer.

“And I think that’s a good thing for our team, instead of him feeling this load. Because the other question would be, ‘Geez, Kevin went 0-for-6 down the stretch, and he had two guys hanging on him. Are those shots you want him taking?’ So it’s a catch-22.”

Like Donovan said, you can’t always have it both ways. Want a more socialistic approach? That’s it, with Durant shrugging off double-teams by making the right pass and trusting someone else to score. But at the same time, you want No. 35 doing more than getting two looks. That’s a difficult balance to find, and one the Thunder aren’t afraid to work on.

“It’s something we’ve got to figure out,” Durant said. “I like that we’re not as predictable, but we’ve still got to stick to what makes us the money, you know what I’m saying? That’s on me to be more aggressive to demand the ball in huddles, but also look for my teammates, as well. We’re still learning, we’re still learning this offense, but that can’t be an excuse. We’ve got to figure it out at some point.”

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be figured out by Nov. 5.

At some point, though, it does, especially if the Thunder want to accomplish their intended evolution under Donovan. They want to find a higher level, to develop a more refined brand of basketball. But to get there, it’s going to take patience. And probably some more failure along the way.

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