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Thunder beat Wizards in OKC: Final wrap and the inability to execute basic defensive concepts

I've preached patience all year because, let's face it, there is an unbelievable amount of newness to this team.  New coach, new superstar (essentially), two new players, new system, new injuries to overcome, a new tough schedule, etc.  Without a transcendant player on the roster, and with a system that preaches ball movement and making the extra pass, it's not as easy as it is for some teams to just come together. 

But last night's loss took me closer and closer to the ledge.  It's not that the Wizards lost in Oklahoma City.  From watching tonight's game and tracking their trajectory this season, it's clear that they might have arrived much sooner than we think.  Russell Westbrook is a lot better than I thought, James Harden looks great, Thabo Sefolosha looks like a steal and Kevin Durant needs no introduction.  They're well-coached too -- I share Mike Jones' appreciation for Scott Brooks tenfold. 

It's how the Wizards lost to Oklahoma City that bugs me the most.  The Thunder are not a good offensive team.  Understand?  They are not a good offensive team.  They have one great player and a bunch of jump-shooters.  For them to score 127 points in a 99-possession game is just unacceptable.  Sure, they're athletic, but they haven't really been able to translate that athleticism offensively yet this season (though they have played some good teams).  For them to score that many points, it means your defense basically did everything wrong.  And it did.

I really thought we were past this.  I wasn't expecting a good defensive team, but I was expecting one where people were at least in the right spots.  The fundamental breakdowns I saw on defense tonight should be a thing of the past.  Instead, they happened, and I don't think Flip Saunders did enough to compensate.  We didn't see much zone, for example.  We saw only 12 minutes of DeShawn Stevenson and zero (okay, one) of Dominic McGuire.  We saw one-shoulder Mike Miller and Caron Butler trotted out to "guard" Durant.  Naturally, things never got better. 

More stuff below the jump, but let's just say that only the Indiana loss approaches the level of frustration that I have after this game.

Four Factors (Bold=very good | Italics=very bad)

Team Pace Off Eff eFG% FT/FG OREB% TOr
Washington 99 109.1
51.7% 22.1 34.8 20.2
Oklahoma City
128.3 59.6% 33.7 33.3


Snap Reaction: The straight bold (well, almost) along the bottom for the Thunder tells you all you need to know.  The first two columns (Off Eff and eFG%) should be in super bold, it was that much above average.  

Lineup Details, via Popcorn Machine

  • Highest individual plus/minus: DeShawn Stevenson (+1 in 12:18)
  • Lowest individual plus/minus: Mike Miller (-19 in 34:30)
  • Best five-man unit: Gilbert Arenas/DeShawn Stevenson/Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison/Brendan Haywood (+6 to end the first quarter)
  • Worst five-man unit: Earl Boykins/Mike Miller/Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison/Andray Blatche (-6 in the third quarter)

Snap reaction: You love Mike Miller's toughness, but he played way too long tonight.  Not just because of the shoulder, but also because he couldn't keep up athleticially with the Thunder tonight.  I never thought I'd say this, but DeShawn Stevenson deserved more minutes.  Somebody needed to be in there to guard someone.

Gilbert Arenas hit the nail on the head with the team's defensive problems. 

"We let them kept getting middle. Our defensive philosophy is don't let a team get middle because once they get middle, they put pressure on the bigs, and then the guards have to suck in, and then you have wide-open 3-pointers, so mentally we just shut down today and they just took advantage of it."

This is a pretty basic defensive concept that's hidden in lingo such as "don't give up dribble penetration."  If a defense is surrendering too much dribble penetration, it really means that they were letting players get to the middle of the floor too easily.  It's not easy to break an entire defense down on the baseline.  You can break down one man, but even if help arrives, your defense isn't in terrible shape unless you let the guy get all the way to the rim.  But if you let your man get to the middle, suddenly the passes off to open shooters and players are easy.  Everything breaks down once you allow your guy to get into the middle of the floor.  That's where the teeth of the defense lies.

Watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook get to the middle over and over and over again just made me want to puke.  Seriously.  Durant is a tough cover for anyone, but Caron Butler made so many mistakes last night.  Whenever Durant was involved in a pick and roll, Butler shaded the baseline, not the middle.  Why?  I have no clue.  Last night's game was simply too easy for Durant, and it started from the jump. 

The other problem with the defense is that there was no effort in trying to take anything away from Oklahoma City.  This goes hand-in-hand with the "giving up the middle" problem, but Washington was reacting to Oklahoma City's action rather than vice versa.  Good defenses understand that you have to give up something.  They then decide what the lowest-percentage play is, force the offense into making it, and prosper in the long run.  When you don't do that, you're simply reacting to what the offense does, and since no human can slide his feet faster than someone can run unless they get a head start, you end up committing tons of silly fouls on the perimeter.  The Wizards committed so many ticky-tack fouls because they didn't dictate Oklahoma City's action on defense.  Force them to beat you with Nenad Kristic 19-footers all night.  Don't let Durant get too comfortable.  Etc. etc.

Knowing all this was happening, I'm really surprised by the player rotations tonight.  Stevenson needed more than 12 minutes in this game.  He was the only guy remotely bothering Durant.  Mike Miller fought hard, but he clearly didn't deserve to be out there for 35 minutes.  And while Earl Boykins is a fun dude, I'm tired of watching him play more minutes than Randy Foye.  Saunders trotted out Arenas and Boykins together in the fourth quarter, and the end result is that Arenas, our money player, ended just four possessions in that quarter, as the game was slipping away.  Foye had a bad game tonight, but by playing him with Arenas, you at least put the ball in Gilbert's hands and give the defense another shooter to account for.  Boykins, like Arenas, can only play with the ball in his hands.  Six-10 minutes in the second and third quarters is enough for Earl the Squirrel.

Offensively, I think we did fine. I thought Arenas was much more of a force than his final line (23 points on 20 shots) indicated.  I thought Antawn Jamison didn't get the ball enough.  I like that Caron shot well, though I hated his selection.  Brendan Haywood dominated both of the Thunder's centers, which was good to see.  Our Big Four showed up offensively against a very good defensive team, which is good to see.  Undoubtedly, there will be criticisms of our offense tonight, but I don't think most of them are unwarranted.  They couldn't stop us in the halfcourt.  Unfortunately, neither could we, and we coughed up the ball enough to give them all the transition points they needed to pull away.

The bottom line is that I'm very concerned about our lack of defense.  The execution of basic defensive concepts tonight was so far off.  It's starting to get to the point where we might want to think about trading pieces for a defensive-oriented guy now that we're starting three very below-average defenders (Miller, Butler and Jamison) on the wings.  That's pretty depressing, because I like this group and I'd prefer not to trade anyone.  It might be necessary, though.