By Randy Renner
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been winning a lot of games lately, 11 of their last 13 to be exact, and since winning is the bottom line that can sometimes lead to a carefree or even careless attitude when it comes to fixing problems.
Like say for instance…defense, which the Thunder haven’t been playing much of lately.
No better example of that than OKC’s last game on Tuesday against Milwaukee. The Bucks came into Oklahoma City having lost 13 of their last 14 games on the road. They were averaging just 96 points a game yet managed to score a season-high 123 against the Thunder. Khris Middleton, a solid but certainly not spectacular player, scored a career-high 36 points.
The Thunder have had to rely more and more on their potent offense to just go and outscore everyone they play. They did it against Milwaukee, putting 131 on the board, but the pressure was on in the fourth quarter for the Thunder not to miss any shots because the Bucks hit 11 of 12 during a stretch in the final 12 minutes.
Billy Donovan and his coaches have been stressing defense since before the season started and players have been talking about it too, sounding as if they know they have to get better on that end of the floor.
Well it’s time to stop just talking about getting better on defense it’s past time actually to go out and start doing it.
“The one area we’ve had some slippage is defense,” Donovan said. “Where we’ve been hurt is on back cutting behind our heads, we’ve gotten hurt on offensive rebounding and we’ve gotten hurt on communication on switches.”
Ah yes, offensive rebounding by opponents is turning into another problem area. The Thunder have been one of the absolute best rebounding teams in the NBA all season, generally ranking wither first, second or third depending on the week.
But Tuesday against Milwaukee they allowed the Bucks to pull down a whopping 18 offensive rebounds and Sunday against Denver the Thunder couldn’t block out either giving up 17 offensive boards.
Of course the bottom line shows OKC won both those games but against better competition, against teams that can match up better against the Thunder and teams that can play good defense the wins will be much harder to come by and we’ve seen that already this season.
The Thunder should be able to tighten things up tonight against a Phoenix Suns squad that is reeling.
They come in one the second night of a back-to-back having been blown out in San Antonio 112-79. The Spurs were up by 20 in the first quarter and never allowed the Suns, who are now without star point guard Eric Bledsoe, to get anything going.
Bledsoe was in the lineup in the first meeting between the teams on November 8th and scored 28, but the Thunder pulled away for a 124-103 victory as Kevin Durant had 32 points, Russell Westbrook added 21 and 13 assists and backup center Enes Kanter contributed 21 points off the bench.
Kanter had a big game Tuesday, scoring 23 points. In fact over the last four games he’s averaging 18.5 points on 68.2 percent shooting and 10 rebounds for his best stretch of the season.
Rookie Cameron Payne showed up big also, getting an extended run and taking advantage of the opportunity with 16 points in just under 16 minutes.
The Suns have shaken up their staff, firing two assistant coaches and head coach Jeff Hornacek, a local hero from his days as a Suns player, could lose his job too in the coming days.
So the Suns are in disarray and should be a team the Thunder can take out early, just like the Spurs did last night.
In San Antonio the Spurs' stars sat on the bench and cheered on their backups for the last couple minutes of the third quarter and all of the fourth. If the Thunder stars can’t do the same thing tonight it will be another troubling sign that 2016 may not end up being a happy new year.