Thunder fans have never been more pleased with a (5-9) record after 14 games and considering their league-leading strength of schedule and lack of A-list talent, they’ve been fairing well in most of their contests.
Of their nine losses, six of them were by five points or less.
OKC’s fight isn’t in question. This is the most heart Oklahoma City fans have seen since Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, so this is a refreshing feeling for a team with maybe half of that team’s talent.
For athletes and competitors, moral victories aren’t accepted. The Thunder are still (5-9) and the margin of their losses makes things more frustrating. Five-point games are two-possession games, so even if the Thunder cut those six losses in half, they’re looking at an (8-6) record which would have them seventh in the Western Conference instead of 10th.
This team’s defensive efficiency has been talked about all season. Their defense is so good that it nearly hides their offensive deficiencies. Having a strong defense will keep you in the game against top-tier competition, but when it comes to crunch time, everything needs to be clicking. More importantly, there needs to be at least one guy that can serve as a reliable offensive option down the stretch. In today’s NBA, it’s almost mandatory to have two with that ability. To the Thunder’s detriment, they don’t have one.
It’s not that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t a rising talent. It’s not that Chris Paul isn’t a future Hall-of-Fame point guard. And It’s not that Danilo Gallinari isn’t the second-best pure shooter the Thunder faithful have laid their eyes on.
The timing is just slightly off right now. Shai, in his second season, is expected to grow immensely. More of a killer instinct should come with time in regards to him.
If there has been a closer thus far for the Thunder, it has been Chris Paul who tends to start cooking late in games, but it’s often still not enough. Paul simply isn’t the 20-point, 11-assist per game type of player he was in the mid-2000s. You can’t expect Paul to be OKC’s featured closer at this stage of his career.
Then you have Gallinari, who is shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range, a 92.6 percent free-throw shooter and OKC’s second-leading scorer at 19.1 points per game. Still, in his 11th NBA season, he’s never been the featured player on a team. That’s not his style of play.
Resolution: Shai is going to have to be that guy. The NBA expects him to be that guy. That’s why it was so hard for the Los Angeles Clippers to let him go in that trade for Paul George. They saw Shai as the next star in Los Angeles if they couldn’t get one (or two) of their own.
Gilgeous-Alexnder currently averages 19.4 points per game, which leads the team already.
Shai has the brightest upside for the Thunder and is on the brink of becoming a real problem in the NBA. In my opinion, it all depends on his aggressiveness. If he can stay as aggressive consistently throughout an entire game, and specifically through crunch time, the Thunder will have their questions answered and more wins are on the horizon.
If not, I’m afraid that close losses will become a habit through the rest of this long, cold season.