By Randy Renner
The Thunder pushed back their normal practice time of 11am to the early afternoon on Monday so players, coaches and staff could attend the funeral for team part-owner Aubrey McClendon who was killed in a car crash last week.
It’s the second time in less than a month the team has gathered inside a church to remember someone dear to the organization who was gone much too soon. Ingrid Williams, the wife of Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams, was killed in a car crash in February just before the All-Star break.
“It’s been a long day man,” sighed backup guard Dion Waiters. “But it feels good to be back and get a good workout in.”
The Thunder, facing more life altering distractions over the last month than most teams are forced to deal with in several seasons are also faced with trying regain their focus on basketball.
Their focus hasn’t just become fuzzy lately, it’s been at least an off and on problem all season.
“Chill mode,” is what Waiters called it.
“We always come out with a great sense of urgency and we get up to a big lead but sometimes we get lackadaisical and tend to get into chill mode.”
The Thunder have lost a whopping 10 games this season, exactly half their losses overall, when leading going into the fourth quarter.
“When we come out and get a big lead we just have to learn how to just step on they neck, just get it over with,” Waiters added.
A killer instinct in other words.
The Thunder have been killers late in games but trouble is their own silly mistakes have more often than not killed their own chances rather than dashed the hopes of their opponents. It happened again Sunday at Milwaukee.
“We’re up 17 points in the third quarter and in three minutes it’s a two-point game. And that’s happened to us a lot since the All-Star break,” head coach Billy Donovan admitted, “but because you find a way to win the game by six or eight points (as the Thunder did against the Bucks) you don’t have a tendency to look at those things.”
Against bad teams, struggling teams and teams that aren’t in the playoff hunt the Thunder have generally been able to overcome “chill mode” to go on to win the game. But against quality opponents, teams fighting for playoff positioning, those teams tend to seize the opening and the win.
Focus is probably the one general thing that tends to leave the Thunder in these situations and then Donovan said that causes all kinds of problems.
“It’s the turnovers, it’s the extra possessions of maybe missing a block out, it’s not generating good shots with ball movement. Our problem is sustaining good play when we have it and avoiding these self-induced lapses. We’ve worked too hard in a lot of those games to just give it away.”
So how do you go about fixing the problems and regaining that lost focus?
“What you wanna do is at least cut down on those things, we’re not gonna play mistake free basketball but when we turn the ball over, let’s not have two or three right in a row. Let’s not fail to block out, let’s execute. If we’ve gone down and had two or three bad shots, let’s not have a fourth. I think when you have some of those momentum changing plays you need to be able to recognize it and stop it.”
Focus and staying away from stupid mistakes is something Donovan has been talking about since the opening of training camp so obviously it’s much easier said than done.
But with just 19 games left in the regular season and huge contests looming this week with the Clippers and Spurs, the time for talking is done the time for doing is now.