As the Thunder fight for playoff positioning, they’ve been hit with an obstacle. After losing four-straight games, the Thunder have looked like a completely different team from last month, specifically before the all-star break. It’s obvious something is afoot on this team during this stretch and that something is the absence of Paul George.
The importance of George on this team is indisputable. This negative stretch has shown the world, once again, how valuable PG is to Oklahoma City. His MVP case may have improved during this absence where his team has struggled. It’s a safe assumption that the Thunder aren’t a team in contention without George healthy. They are, perhaps the same team they were during the 2016-2017 season with Westbrook as their lone wolf.
All this absence has shown is that the Thunder still may be the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors when George is healthy, but the drop off when he isn’t healthy is so significant.
In the three games he’s missed, the Thunder are averaging 101 points per game on 42.2 percent shooting from the field and 30.9 percent from three. Offensively, that would be the worst in the league and defensively during this stretch, the Thunder are near the league’s worst.
The offensive issues are obvious but that’s not the origin of their issues. The Thunder are at their best when they play lockdown defense because they thrive off forcing turnovers and scoring off those turnovers. George leads the NBA in steals, averaging 2.3 per game. Russell Westbrook sits third with 2.1 per game. The Thunder are at the top of the league in that department. Additionally, replacing a missing piece on defense serves as more of a challenge than to replace offense alone.
Paul George is OKC’s heart and soul on the defensive end of the floor. In what was formerly Andre Roberson’s role, George is just as effective defensively and better than Roberson offensively by tenfold. Weirdly enough, or not so weird for those that play or have played basketball at a high level, the Thunder could find a way to score the basketball but they can’t – and haven’t found a way to elevate their defense without their superstar.
Defense is rhythmic and losing a key player like George can throw that rhythm off, therefore the Thunder are tasked with trying to adjust that rhythm to stay afloat. OKC has been a rare team because other than a few missteps through the season, their defense has stayed consistent. Most teams struggle to find that rhythm, period.
The reason why the Thunder have had a challenging time since George’s absence is because of that. Offensively, they are a shade above average but when you talk about their offensive production when they are playing elite defense it’s a different story; the Thunder are among the best on offense.
With that being said, unless George’s right shoulder injury is more severe than the Thunder are letting be known, there’s not much to worry about and the Thunder will be fine come playoff time. The biggest threat right now is the timing of this. OKC has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA and they’re in a dog fight with Portland and Houston for the third spot in the Western Conference with an unhealthy George.