Slow Start, Lacking Concentration Leads to Loss – OKC 112, CHI 114

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter |

CHICAGO – All season long the Thunder has been so committed and so consistent in its defensive identity that it truly stands out when it doesn’t play up to its own standards. On Wednesday against Brooklyn, the signs started to show that the defense had slipped a bit. Two nights later against the Chicago Bulls, the Thunder missed the mark completely in the first half, allowing turnovers to result in fast break run outs, three-point shooters to get into a rhythm with wide open looks and for rollers to get deep into the paint for dunks down low in an eventual 114-112 loss.

All of that resulted in 70 first half points for the Bulls, a season-high for a Thunder opponent. Yet somehow the Thunder stayed close enough to striking distance that all it needed was one major push to give itself a chance. In the third quarter, the Thunder finally got back to its identity – proving that it can get there when necessary.

“We didn’t come out right. 70 points is way too much,” said Dennis Schröder. “In the second half we adjusted and let them score 44. That’s our game. We didn’t do it in the first half and got punished for it and lost the game.”

Russell Westbrook grabbed a defensive rebound off of a missed baseline two-point jumper by the Bulls, and the Thunder was off to the races. With all five men flowing into offense, Westbrook attacked and drew defenders, finding Paul George at the slot. Without hesitation or even a look in the right direction, George flicked an extra pass to the corner for Jerami Grant, who buried a three to complete the quintessential hockey assist. Two possessions later, In his very best role as off-ball roamer, George played a bit of free safety and read a play perfectly, darting down to the baseline to swipe an attempted backdoor pass from one Chicago Bull to another.  

Those two plays defined a 13-2 Thunder run to start the second half that made what was an 11-point first half deficit into a one-possession game. The burst spilled into a 25-7 run for Oklahoma City to make it a 10-point Thunder lead at 87-77 with 4:01 to go in the third quarter. After a first half where Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club clearly didn’t play to its identity or standards on the defensive end by giving up a season-high 70 points, the team was laser-focused in the third quarter. In the third alone, the Thunder forced Chicago into 40 percent shooting and just 3 three-point attempts plus 11 Bulls giveaways, leading directly to 13 points off turnovers as a part of the Thunder’s 29-17 edge in the quarter overall.

“Sometimes there will be nights like that. We found it through spurts of the game but obviously it wasn’t good enough,” said Westbrook, who finished with a 24-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist triple-double. “We stepped the pace up defensively. We did a good job of that for that quarter, turning it up defensively.”

The defense got the Thunder back in it and in control with an 89-79 lead as its largest lead towards the end of the third. As Donovan explained both before and after the game, a team that lives on a knife’s edge for so long in a game leaves itself vulnerable to the whims of the basketball gods late in the game. Missed free throws and layups, bad fouls, turnovers and leaving three-point shooters open can only be mitigated by good fortune for so long. On Wednesday in Brooklyn, the Thunder got off scot free. Not so much Friday in Chicago, as the young Bulls were already feeling it, in rhythm and playing with confidence on the offensive end.

“I didn’t think our focus and our concentration was there,” said Donovan. “When you live dangerously like that, sometimes you’re not going to be on the winning end.”

Chicago used a 6-0 run at the end of the third and a 13-2 burst early in the fourth quarter to wrestle that momentum right back. For the game, the Thunder turned it over 22 times leading to 28 points, including 19 out in transition. That free flowing Bulls offense translated to the half court too, where the Thunder allowed 52.4 percent shooting, including 12-for-25 marksmanship from behind the arc.

“Turnovers. Turnovers,” Westbrook stated stoically when asked about the reason for Chicago’s fast break points.

“We could have done a better job getting back in general and I think some of the turnovers were certainly byproducts of having a hard time of getting the floor balanced and matching up correctly,” Donovan stated.

All of those sins manifested themselves late in the contest, as in the final 1:34 Thunder forward Jerami Grant was called for an offensive foul, Chicago guard Justin Holiday buried a wing three after over-helping in the lane left him alone for a catch and shoot, then Bulls prodigy Lauri Markkanen drove and finished a tough spinning floater in the lane with 4.9 seconds to go.

In Brooklyn, George’s game-winning three-pointer caked makeup over the team’s mistakes over the course of the 48 minutes. Tonight the Thunder sharpshooter’s potential go-ahead shot from behind the arc went awry, and the team confronted head-on its need to get back to its baseline. As the Thunder heads back home for one quick game at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday, the full focus will be on returning to that identity of consistent, ferocious defense.

“We can’t get tired of winning,” said Schröder before referencing the Thunder’s streak of wins in 16 of 19 games prior to tonight. “We did a great job over the last 15-20 games staying locked in. We have to do it every night. We gotta do it for 48 minutes. We can’t just turn it on like we did in Brooklyn. We talked about it and we’re going to get better and improve on that part.”

“A slip up is all it is. We dropped one,” added George. “We’ve done a great job all season long of winning the games that we should win. A game like this, a loss like this that kind of re-sets things and puts it in perspective that we have to do a better job when we come out on that floor.”


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