By Randy Renner
The early season new normal for the Oklahoma City Thunder looks a lot like the old normal, circa late 2008, early 2009, for the Thunder.
Back then of course the superstars weren't injured, they were just young. Kevin Durant was in his second season and Russell Westbrook in his first. Serge Ibaka was still playing in Spain, guys like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson were still either in high school or freshmen in college.
Thunder GM Sam Presti was still hard at work re-making the roster. That team started the season 3-29 and then turned things around with a win on New Year's Eve and played pretty decent the rest of that season.
That team was, as a lot of us said back then, just good enough to get beat. Things would be going along great and some sort of something or other would happen (or not happen) and the Thunder would lose a close game that had been competitive right up until the end.
This team (the part of it that's healthy anyway) feels a lot like that one. Just good enough to get beat. Hard workers, lots of effort and then something goes wrong. A shot doesn't fall, a a defensive switch doesn't work like it's supposed to, the ball stops moving and someone tries to be a hero.
Last night in Utah the Thunder offense was looking about as good as it can and the defense was dominant. Then all of a sudden the ball stopped moving and open shots couldn't be found. Desperation heaves at the end of the shot clock turned into fast break opportunities for the Jazz and the defense was on its heels.
What appeared to be a nice win in the making (a 17-point lead almost to halftime) instead turned into a rout. Utah led by as many as 20 points in the second half on the way to a 98-81 win.
The Thunder are now scoring just 88.8 points a game (29th in the NBA), only Philadelphia at 88.5 is worse and they're making just 41.6 percent of their shots (tied for 28th in the NBA). The good news is the defense continues to play solid, certainly good enough to win most games giving up just 94.3 points (5th in the NBA) on 42.3 percent shooting (4th in the NBA).
Those defensive numbers continue to give coaches hope that the Thunder can win a few games while the superstars heal from injuries and surgeries. The defensive numbers show the effort the team continues to use.
The problems are mostly on offense and they mostly seem to be based on bad decisions. Sure there are times when shots just don't fall, especially the 3-balls and the long jumpers. That's when you move the ball around and go inside to the big guys or just drive the lane and get to the line.
The Thunder have been one of the top teams in the NBA at getting to the line and then making free throws. Not now, not without Durant and Westbrook. Now the Thunder are near the bottom in made free throws (16.1 per game) and free throw percentage (71.7). Phoenix leads the NBA in free throw shooting right now, hitting 82.5 percent. That's usually about where the Thunder are.
The recipe for success always seems pretty simple, take high percentage shots or move the ball around enough so that you have an open look on those jumpers. Get to the line and hit your free throws.
But sometimes the simplest things can become very complicated when players have to play in different roles than they're used to, when they have to step-up because no one is there anymore to back them up.
The biggest issue now for Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is to somehow make sure the effort doesn't wane as the losses mount.
The cavalry is coming, Durant, Westbrook, Roberson, Perry Jones and Mitch McGary will ride to the rescue soon. Brooks is just hoping he doesn't look like George Custer by the time the help arrives.