Defense Struggled to Get Stops, Thunder Fell in the Fourth – OKC 126, ATL 142

ATLANTA – On Tuesday morning the Thunder’s coaches and players knew the Atlanta Hawks were a team that would test them from behind the three-point line, in the deep paint and on second chances. All of those areas hurt the Thunder later that night, and aside from the first and third quarters the Hawks were dominant, scoring 45 points in each of the second and fourth quarters in a 142-126 Thunder loss. 

Head Coach Billy Donovan said that while there certainly were some x’s and o’s issues in the game - namely the weak side protection of the rim - that it was a team-wide lackluster performance that did the Thunder in. The coaches were included in that assessment. 

Dennis Schröder, who made his return to Atlanta by scoring 21 points to go with 6 assists, said the issue was not bringing the right energy for the full 48 minutes.

Russell Westbrook said the effort was lacking and Paul George said there were some defensive coverages in the pick and roll that he and his teammates have to correct. When execution and energy have converged for the Thunder this season, the results have been magnificent. Tonight’s game featured neither.

“They shoot a lot of threes, they do a really good job offensive rebounding and they try to generate some turnovers. We’ve been a great defensive team all year. This certainly wasn’t one of our better performances.”

Even if the guys in the locker room couldn’t pinpoint a crystal-clear reason why the Thunder didn’t have its fastball on the defensive end tonight, the numbers clearly showed how the Thunder got hurt by the Hawks. 

Atlanta’s 68 points in the paint came mostly off drive and dish dunks for Hawks big men like John Collins, who made his first 11 shots and scored 26 points on a overwhelming number of rolls to the rim. A consistent theme throughout the night was the lack of contests by Thunder length at the rim, with the Hawks shooting 34-of-43 (79.1 percent) in the paint for the game. 

“We let the ball get downhill a little bit too long and kind of held our coverage there,” Donovan explained. “Then when that big was kind of caught in no-man’s land we probably got hurt back over the top.”

“We’ve been seeing the same pick and roll schemes, the same pick and roll plays all season. It’s an area we’ve gotta improve,” George explained. “We just gotta get better with it. We’re going to keep seeing it. The league is a copycat league. Everybody runs the same stuff. It’s just an area we have to improve in.”

The Thunder dominated one hustle stat, fast break points, to the tune of 40-10 by continually getting back on defense and then sprinting out into the open floor after 19 Hawks turnovers. Unfortunately an equally important hustle category did not go the Thunder’s way, as the Thunder gave up 18 second chance points on 10 Hawks offensive rebounds. 

It was remarkable that the Hawks were able to pile up that many extra buckets considering they only missed 34 shots all night. Atlanta went an incredible 62.2 percent from the field, including 18 made threes, both of which were season-highs for a Thunder opponent.

The Thunder held onto a shaky lead after one quarter thanks to 15 free throw attempts, but Atlanta was already shooting 50 percent from the field and managed to go supernova in the second quarter with a 25-12 start to the period thanks to some wide-open dunks at the rim and some open catch and shoot three-pointers on the wing. The Thunder’s defense got stretched out having to stay tight on ball-handlers out top, with help-side defenders arriving too late to do anything about over the top passes that guards were able to float in because they’d turned the corner and were allowed to hang in the lane.

“The second unit, especially me in the first half, we didn’t do a great job competing,” said Schröder. “In the third quarter we gave us a chance to come back and tied it up, but from there we probably didn’t have enough energy. We’ve gotta do it for 48 minutes.”

The Thunder, trailing by 12 at halftime, came right out of the locker room and corrected many of those problem spots in the third quarter. Westbrook and Jerami Grant (21 points, 2 blocks) and Westbrook each came over from help position to break up a lob try, and the Thunder got out into the open floor for some easy looks. Starting with a 15-3 burst in addition to five straight made field goal attempts by Schröder, the Thunder flipped the script and went into the final frame up 100-97.

“In the third quarter I just let the game come to me,” said Schröder, who shook off an 0-for-5 shooting start and picked it up after halftime. “I was better in the second half.”

“(Schröder) bringing a huge part to our success thus far,” added Westbrook, who himself added 31 points, 11 assists and 5 steals. “He continues to get better throughout the season.”

The fourth quarter resembled the second, with the Hawks getting a pair of easy and-one layups on soft fouls down low to get the momentum flowing. Even with the starters back in, the Hawks’ 15-2 run put the Thunder desperately behind the eight ball with very little time to spare. Every Thunder charge got parried, and by the time Trae Young splashed a very deep three-pointer with 2:38 to go, it was clear that it was the Hawks’ night, and decidedly not the Thunder’s.

“We just didn’t have the effort that we needed for 48 minutes,” Westbrook concluded.  

Highlights: Thunder at Hawks - 1/15/19