Previewing the Oklahoma City Thunder with Thunderous Intentions

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 29: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Orlando Magic on March 29, 2017 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 29: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Orlando Magic on March 29, 2017 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Oklahoma City Thunder make their only trip to the Amway Center on Wednesday as both teams try to get out from struggling starts to the season.

The Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder are very different teams.

The Thunder have three superstars in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. They have the weight of expectations and the players every team envies — able to take over games with their scoring ability. Sometimes it feels like the Thunder pick and choose who they want to win the game.

Of course, that might actually be the problem. Because the Magic and Thunder are not so different — not in the standings at least, as early as it is.

The Thunder come into Wednesday’s game at the Amway Center at 8-11. The Magic are 8-13, albeit on a nine-game losing streak. Both teams have very clearly had their difficulties this season.

Orlando had a hot start followed by a devastating losing streak. The Thunder, on the other hand, have been incredibly up and down. Oklahoma City has lost four of its last five. But that one win was over the Golden State Warriors.

The NBA season can be very confusing sometimes. Especially for a team as star-studded as the Thunder.

It is clear they are still figuring things out. That was coach Frank Vogel’s assessment when asked to preview Wednesday’s game. Everyone on this team especially knows just how dangerous Russell Westbrook can be — see his 50-point games the last two times he has come to Orlando.

And this Thunder team ranks as one of the top defensive teams in the league. So at least they have that identity going for them as their stars figure out how to share the ball more effectively.

The Magic are focusing on themselves to get themselves out of this losing streak. But they will have a cyclone coming at them in the form of Westbrook.

And Oklahoma City has been off since Saturday, licking its wounds following a surprising and disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

There is no doubt at some point the Thunder’s talent is going to win out. They will figure things out and have shown flashes of doing so throughout this season — even if it is not yet consistent. The Magic will have to do their best and hope they have things figured out to combat it.

To help us get ready for Wednesday’s game, I exchanged questions with Tamberlyn Richardson of Thunderous Intentions to get ready for the game.

Philip Rossman-Reich, Orlando Magic Daily: Everyone sort of assumes you put three stars together and things work pretty easily. And there are not many trios as talented as Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. So why does it feel like the team is struggling so much?

Tamberlyn Richardson, Thunderous Intentions: The simple answer is because Oklahoma City is struggling, especially offensively and particularly in clutch situations or in half-court offense. Some point to Westbrook’s playmaking and distribution which has merit (in some games). But, if you have caught games when the Thunder held double-digit leads, the main reason they lose those leads/games is because they change the offense. Similarly to last year’s triple-double MVP season the team become spectators who stand in place watching Westbrook.

Oklahoma City gains the lead via aggressive defense, easy transition scoring and most importantly ball and player movement. Once they stop doing those things and digress into iso ball they become predictable and easy to stop. All three superstars were used to being “the man” for their respective teams with high usage and shot rates. Initially, almost as a response to the pundits who questioned how the “OK3” could coexist, the trio equally distributed their shot attempts. Recently, however, the OK3 figured out their attempts needs to be fluid, based on a game by game situation.

Ultimately, Paul George needs to be more involved in the offense both in terms of scoring and ball handling. That alone will make the Thunder less predictable. Moving forward, while Oklahoma City took a big step beating the Warriors, until the OK3 get a clutch-time win under their belts and show consistency through a number of games they will not recognize the success everyone expects from them.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City Thunder /

Oklahoma City Thunder

Philip: Everyone focuses on the big three for Oklahoma City, but are there any role players that are standing out?

Tamberlyn: In terms of top producers Jerami Grant and Josh Huestis have been the most consistent. The problem is Billy Donovan‘s rotations are all over the place. From game to game it is never a consistent rotation even beyond specific matchups.

The easy answer is there are reserves standing out for the wrong reasons. Two players, in particular, have not produced to preseason expectations. It was thought Alex Abrines would take a step forward this summer by adding muscle/weight and by continuing to be a perimeter threat. But, his numbers reflect a regression from his specialty area. Abrines shot 38.1 percent from the perimeter last season but is shooting 31.9 percent this season. And he seems more lost on defense than his rookie season.

Yet, the player who is causing the most concern is Patrick Patterson. His lack of minutes may be due to the offseason injury, but presumably if he is playing at all he should be getting consistent minutes. Historically Patterson gets off to a slow start, but he is making molasses look quick. Donovan is playing him an average of 14.1 minutes per game. With the Toronto Raptors, Patterson was the first off the bench and frequently garnered more minutes than some of the starters. Defense was his calling card, but his perimeter shot kept the floor spread. Since Patterson tends to find his shot around December perhaps he will have a breakout game soon and this will lead to an increase in minutes.

I am not saying Patterson would fix everything, but Donovan either needs to commit to playing him 20-25 minutes a game or give another player like Dakari Johnson consistent playing time (Johnson frequently gets DNP-CD).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Philip: Oklahoma City’s defensive rating is really impressive. Is it surprising to see the Thunder so strong on that end? What has made their defense so good?

Tamberlyn: Oklahoma City has a number of strong defensive players — Andre Roberson, Paul George, Steven Adams in the starting rotation with Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis and Patrick Patterson off the bench. All six are above average defenders. At their best, the Thunder play aggressive defense with active hands, cut down angles in passing lanes and force multiple turnovers. This translates into fast break opportunities and easy baskets.

The other hot take is Russell Westbrook was drafted because of his defensive ability and when he is dialed in for an entire game he becomes a factor. Given how much offense he was responsible for the past few seasons it was fair he regressed defensively. Honestly, can you imagine Westbrook bringing the same effort on defense as he does offensively? They would have to limit him to 10-15 minutes a game or risk him collapsing.

Roberson and George are arguably the best wing defensive tandem in the NBA which is a key factor in Oklahoma City’s current prowess. Adams is another key to the system as one of the better pick and roll defenders and rim protectors. However, part of the problem in the second half defense may be rooted here, in that Adams is expected to do too much. Adams needs to pick up the slack missing from Carmelo Anthony, whose forte is clearly not defense. And, Donovan shares a portion of the blame given his reluctance to use Patterson or Johnson more. The result is Adams ends up fatigued which shows up first on the defensive end.

The Thunder still have issues defending the paint, especially stopping guards and wings that are adept at driving. At their worst the Thunder stop being aggressive, communicating and defending, which tends to happen in those second-half collapses.

Philip: Are fans disappointed with the Thunder’s record? What has led to the poor record to start the season?

Tamberlyn: It was anticipated integrating the OK3 would be a process, so the fan base was prepared to be patient. That said, there is disappointment over the Thunder’s inability to hold leads and the sheer number of clutch-time losses. As the NBA season nears the quarter mark and the same habits continue the more apprehensive Thunder Nation are.

Another area which elicits concern is how much of this is focus based, given the ease with which Oklahoma City beat the current title holders prior to getting absolutely thrashed and embarrassed in Dallas. In spite of that, the Thunder fan base ranks among the best in the Association, so they will be supportive to the bitter end.

Philip: What do the Orlando Magic need to do to defeat the Thunder?

Tamberlyn: Historically games between the Magic and Thunder have been exciting, often coming down to the wire. Westbrook, in particular, seems to excel at the Amway Center. Therefore, a key will be to limit his playmaking ability since he often will suffice and fall into the role of a shooter which is not ideal for the Thunder especially over the course of 48 minutes. Since the Thunder have issues guarding drives Elfrid Payton should be prepared to attack as frequently as possible.

If the Magic can get a lead or keep it close it also bodes well for them given the Thunder have yet to win a game in clutch time and have lost their past six road games. In spite of that, the Thunder spent the past three days practicing with the bitter taste of the embarrassing loss in Dallas in their mouths. To that end, I would not be surprised if Oklahoma City jumps on Orlando in the first quarter, build a double-digit lead by the half and given a priority is for Oklahoma City is to maintain leads keep the pressure on through the second half.

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My thanks to Tamberlyn for dropping by to give us a preview of the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can check out her work at Thunderous Intentions and follow her on Twitter @TTOTambz. Be sure to head over to Thunderous Intentions to get my thoughts on the Orlando Magic and tonight’s game.