In Paul George’s first game back in the lineup since Feb. 16, the Thunder traveled to face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday in what turned out to be another subpar performance, losing their sixth in eight games, 131-120.
These are things that happen when you allow 71 points in the first half and 131 points in a 48-minute game. Two issues arise when pondering on what went wrong, or what is going wrong with the Thunder during this stretch: them finding their rhythm again, and the possibility that Steven Adams is reaching a defining moment in his career.
Russell Westbrook had one of his more efficient games against the Timbs, lighting them up for 38 points on 15-of-28 shooting from the floor and 5-of-10 from three. When Westbrook has those numbers, you’d assume they won the game with ease, right? How about if you heard that Karl Anthony-Towns countered Russ’ big night with 41 points on 15-of-27 shooting and 3-of-5 from three?
That’s where the problem lies, and it falls on the back of Anthony-Towns’ primary defender Steven Adams, who multiple times this year has been exposed for not being able to stay on par with mobile bigs. Anthony-Towns is one of the best, but he’s one of many. The mobile big man is more popular than ever, and the trend is only growing. It’s clear that the future of the NBA is geared towards 6’10-7′ bigs with the ability to handle and shoot the ball.
That’s a skill set that Adams doesn’t seem to have and it’s a skill set that he struggles significantly with, despite being one of the better defensive bigs inside the paint. During this streak where the Thunder have lost 6-of-8 games, four of those came when Adams faced mobile big men. Coincidentally those players served vital roles in their team’s success against OKC.
It started with Anthony Davis, who didn’t play his regular minutes against the Thunder due to the drama surrounding his relationship with the Pelicans. Davis still managed to score 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting, all in 15 minutes of playing time. Next came Nikola Jokic, who shot 4-of-7 from three en route to scoring 36 points. He wasn’t his primary defender but LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 27 points, also exposed Adams on multiple occasions during OKC’s loss in San Antonio and most recently, Anthony-Towns. In those four games, Adams was a -62, a team worst.
This isn’t all on Adams. The Thunder as a team have been off during this stretch and what makes the most sense is them finding their rhythm again. Over the all-star break, OKC acquired Markieff Morris, a player that’s known for his toughness and above-average defensive mindset. For those that don’t focus their eyes on defense, listen to this; it’s all about timing, rhythm and the team being completely in sync. In OKC’s case, they lack all three, because they’re trying to make a new note fit in this measure of the song so that everything sounds right. In that case, it’ll take time. Hopefully not too much time as the Thunder are on the verge of plummeting down the playoff race and out of having homecourt advantage.
Further reasoning behind the Thunder being out of sorts defensively is George’s absence and the reclamation of him in the lineup. With George as the defensive anchor on this team, his shoulder complications couldn’t have come at a more unfortunate time with the new addition.
As stated earlier, there are two reasons why the Thunder have been underperforming, and one can be fixed. They’ll find their rhythm, but the question is, how long will it take them? Things are tight in the Western Conference right now with only three games separating the third and seventh seed. It’s a tighter race for home-court advantage. One thing that probably won’t change is Adams, who in his sixth season could still improve but is more than likely not physically able to keep up with a large and growing percentage of mobile bigs. The Thunder may face a tough reality in the offseason regarding that.
With that being said, the Thunder should be able to pull out of this untimely tough stretch heads-up. Once George gets reacclimated to the defense and Morris catches up, the Thunder will have enough to supplement what Adams may give up against these mobile big men.