The Oklahoma City Thunder went into the All-Star break having won 11 of 13 games, including victories over the 76ers, the Bucks, the Rockets, and twice over the Blazers. They went a season-best 18 games over .500 with an overtime win over Utah on February 22; since then, they’ve lost 11 of 16, and have dropped all the way to eighth in the Western Conference standings. They are in zero danger of missing the playoffs—the Kings are 6.5 games back of the final spot, and will be eliminated from contention with any combination of four losses or OKC wins—but in their current state they look like nothing more than a light appetizer for whoever winds up snagging that top seed in the West bracket.
The misery continued Monday night, with a 115–103 loss in Memphis to a hibernating Grizzlies team playing without Mike Conley, who missed the game to rest a sore thigh. Memphis’s nine-man rotation was a who’s who of guys who make you say “who?” when scanning the box score: Bruno Caboclo started at forward and played 35 minutes; Tyler Dorsey started for Conley, and saw a game-high 39 minutes of burn. Meaningful minutes were given to the likes of Ivan Rabb, Jevon Carter, and Julian Washburn. The dreaded Chandler Parsons played 24 minutes off the bench, and even finished narrowly in the black by plus/minus. Caboclo, whose name became a punchline synonymous with cosmic-brain draft scouting during his disappointing time in Toronto, and who made his way to Memphis’s starting lineup via two 10-day contracts earlier this winter, led the Grizzlies with 24 points. Here’s what it looks like when Bruno Caboclo puts up a 24-point double-double in an NBA game, which frankly was inconceivable as recently as December:
Only some of tonight’s result came down to various generic Memphis create-a-players wildly outperforming their usual output. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams—by far the three most important players in Oklahoma City’s rotation—combined to shoot a dismal 17-of-56 from the floor, including a putrid 6-of-20 performance from Westbrook. Westbrook has been reasonably efficient, scoring-wise, since the break, improving his effective field goal percentage by more than six points, and has started to look more and more like his former self. Being who he is, a stinker is always lurking around some corner, and tonight was just one of those. The Thunder have overcome any number of them already this season.
But George’s awful night—10-of-29 overall, 5-of-15 from beyond the arc, including a three he banged off the side of the backboard—is a little more problematic, at least in part because in OKC’s offense George is less a playmaker than a deadly finisher. When his scoring efficiency slips, even opposite a corresponding rise in Russ’s scoring efficiency, the team’s offense goes in the tank: Since the break, George’s effective field goal percentage—a metric that adjusts the weight of two-point attempts and three-point attempts to reflect their relative value—has dropped almost eight points, from a robust 54.6 percent to 46.9 percent; not coincidentally, since the All-Star break OKC’s offensive rating with George on the floor has dropped an alarming 6.4 points per hundred possessions. The Thunder are still far, far better with him on the floor than off, but that drop represents a fall from a scoring rate that would rank in the NBA’s top six (112.3) to one that would rank 27th overall (105.9). The team’s offense has never exactly been a whirring killing machine, but since the break it’s sagged to 29th in the league by points per possession, ahead of only the tanking and desperately talent-poor Knicks.
This is what it looks like when your team finds itself in a zone of comparison with the Knicks:
Billy Donovan, generally one of the more upbeat coaches in the NBA, seemed pretty frustrated by his team’s lethargic and scattershot effort against the Grizzlies. OKC had two days between their encouraging win over the Raptors Friday night and this loss, which suggests the Thunder might’ve fallen for the dreaded trap game, except that they’ve played so shitty lately that their play Monday night hardly needs such an explanation:
OKC’s schedule has turned brutal down the stretch, and there’s a certain lack of urgency to climbing out of the eighth seed, while the ninth seed is so far out of contention and the team everyone hopes to avoid—those damn Golden State Warriors—is currently not the top seed. But this was a fun season for Oklahoma City, right up until their offense went into the toilet, where it has now been for more than a month. They went from an exciting dark-horse contender to hoping for help above them in the standings in order to avoid getting their asses karate kicked off by the conference’s heavyweights. They’ve got 15 days and eight games left to reverse course before this infuriating run of shittiness becomes catastrophic.