When last season ended for the Oklahoma City Thunder it was evident that general manager Sam Presti needed to get Russell Westbrook more assistance from at least one more All-Star talent in the league. During the offseason, just eight days after the NBA Draft, Presti came out of the woodwork surprising everybody by trading for Paul George when they were not even mentioned to be a team that could acquire George from the Pacers. Fast forward to late September and he would do the same thing when he decided to take Carmelo Anthony away from his dramatic tenure with the New York Knicks and give him a new start behind Russ who was once again paired with two All-Stars to create a “big three.”
It was obvious this new look for the Thunder — like all changes — would take some time to get used to seeing. But what wasn’t so obvious was how they were gonna start their season off with eight wins and 12 losses seemingly collapsing like a team that doesn’t know how to approach these major changes with effective methods of developing chemistry.
A few weeks ago, Carmelo Anthony was staying positive through the Thunder’s early season woes stating, “After the first 20 games is when things really start to kick in.”
So far, Melo has been right about that as the Thunder won their third straight game on Tuesday matching a season high in win streaks. A three game win streak is not something to be proud of but over these past three games, the Thunder have been able to conjure up the team chemistry they were blatantly missing through the previous 20 games.
Each of the last three games ended in single-digit victories for OKC. Prior to the past three games, the Thunder have only had two other single-digit victories and 11 of their 12 losses were in single-digits. It’s evident that the Thunder are finally beginning to display the resiliency and camaraderie that a team needs to come out of close games with victories on a more consistent basis. A feeling is emerging that OKC may have discovered a formula that they can use and improve with to reach their full potential as a team. That formula is based around the utmost of trust on both sides of the ball. Cliché I know, but it is true. Great defense leads to easy offense and the Thunder are fourth in opponents points per game (98.8ppg) and first in steals per game (10.5spg). On the offensive end, passing on good shots to create great shots with better ball movement and less isolation plays makes the game easy for the offense and keeps the defense honest.
So far, Anthony and George have accepted the challenge of turning down shots they have been accustomed to forcing their entire careers in order to create the easiest shot the offense can get each possession (in their defense, they have both had to carry large scoring loads in recent years). Because of their unselfishness to adjust accordingly to help their team win, players like Steven Adams have excelled more than ever offensively. Adams has averaged around 22 points per game while shooting above 80 percent over the past three games including a career-high 27 points with 100 percent accuracy with a career high 11 made shots on 11 shot attempts in a win versus the Timberwolves on December 1st.
“The reason why Steven is doing what he’s going is because of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “When we’re patient on offense, Steven’s going to get those opportunities. Steven’s not doing really anything different from maybe he’s done in the past.”
“I think we’re building in the right direction,” Paul George said after the Thunder’s win Sunday against San Antonio. “We’re not caring who’s getting shots. The ball is just moving. I mean, you see it, Melo’s been taking a huge sacrifice, in terms of his shots and his ability to move and make plays. Russ, myself, man, it’s moving. And you’re going to see guys like Steven [Adams] being on that better end of it from us playing this attack, penetrate and kick and try to find our teammates.”
Carmelo’s recent adjustments shows that he’s in the stage of his career where winning is above all else. In the past, coaches have tried to persuade Melo to adjust his game to the team’s needs whether by focusing on defense or actually running an offensive play all the way through rather than isolate on the wing once the ball is passed to him but none succeeded at the task.
“For me, personally, it’s just about doing something different, seeing where the team really needs me on a night-to-night basis,” Anthony said Sunday. “And just be willing to do that and being willing to sacrifice, not every night having to score 20 or 30 points. And I’m good with that; it’s a good feeling, as long as we’re winning.”
With George and Anthony’s latest approach to mold themselves around Westbrook, the Thunder are seemingly starting to click in the offense coach Donovan has them running. Prior to this short win streak, it seemed like the Thunder were playing pick up basketball rather than organize plays and run them all the way through for the best shot possible. As long as the Thunder’s big three continue to illustrate consistent unselfishness on offense while maintaining the same intensity on defense, this short win streak will swiftly develop into one of the longest streaks this season will witness next to Boston’s early streak of 16 straight wins and Cleveland’s current win streak of 13.
Still, regardless of the Thunder’s recent improvement, they still have yet to prove themselves on the road where they are 2-9 opposed to being 9-3 at home. Unless they begin to reduce their turnovers and play with more effort to maintain leads, OKC’s star players will never be able to potentially receive additional rest in-game. The more minutes they play throughout the season, the more the possibility that they get gassed by the end of the season increases. Assuming they make the playoffs as everybody still expects, they will need as much energy as they can get to compete against the best teams in the Western Conference en route to chasing a championship.
Time will ultimately tell us how for real the Thunder are but as of now, they will look to continue their improvement while extending their win streak to four in Mexico City on Thursday versus the Brooklyn Nets.