Decision making is a skill.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a fascinating case study in that concept.
Once again, the Thunder lost big to a team they should have beaten. Once again, they got away from ball movement as the game developed. Once again, they have their previously ingrained basketball habits to thank for it. It’s something the now 8-12 Thunder have tried to improve on over the first quarter of the season.
They haven’t — because decision making is a skill, not a choice. And coach Billy Donovan recognized that after the Thunder’s 121-108 loss at the Orlando Magic, losers of nine straight coming into Wednesday’s blowout.
“I’ve just got to try to continue to try to help them see the vision of when the ball moves and you generate 14 assists [in the first half] and it’s being sprayed around and you’re generating good looks, you’re going to shoot a relatively high percentage,” Donovan said. “And I thought in the second half, we really weren’t able to do that consistently.”
The Thunder shot just 32 percent during the second half against Orlando, down from 48 in the first. They dished just three assists over the final two periods.
It was the same offensive story as nearly all the other losses before it. The ball movement went away. The shot selection went to places where scoring attacks go to die — like the mid-range. And the team turned off.
The same type of offense got the better of OKC in its previous game, a 97-81 loss at the Dallas Mavericks, against whom the Thunder shot just 4 of 22 from mid-range, the least efficient area of the court. They shot only 3 of 19 on mid-range shots (and 6 of 34 on shots between the restricted area and 3-point line) against the Magic.
“We keep talking about the same thing, but as a coach, you want to help them see that vision and carry that vision for the full 48 minutes,” Donovan said. “And again, we weren’t able to do that.”
Russell Westbrook went into jacking mode during the fourth quarter, scoring 20 in the period and 37 in the game. But the binge buckets came after the Thunder had already gotten down big.
They trailed by as many as 22 on a night when the defense was lackluster for the game’s entirety.
Donovan shook up rotations, using backup center Dakari Johnson and inserting rookie wing Terrance Ferguson as his first man off the bench for the second consecutive game. It meant another night of no rotation minutes for sharpshooter Alex Abrines.
The Magic feasted on the bench units on an evening that came easy specifically for budding Orlando star Aaron Gordon, who led a 59 percent team shooting effort with a 40-point, 15-rebound, four-assist performance which included six 3-pointers.
The Thunder just watched. And no one responded quite as aggressively on the other end.
Paul George shot 7 of 17 for 22 points. Carmelo Anthony shot 5 of 16 for 16. Andre Roberson managed to drop in 11 points off cuts and six offensive rebounds. Steven Adams got up to only six while playing limited minutes due to foul trouble, part of the reason the defense struggled.
But the problems were the same once again: an offense pumped with talent most NBA teams would take in a moment isn’t changing its style.
The Thunder remain last in the NBA in passes per game. And such a stat doesn’t mean they’ll automatically have a bottom-tier offense.
But it’s indicative of the problem.
Once again, they dribbled up the court, went one pass and chucked up a shot all too often. It’s great players relying on what made them great before, not what could make them great now.
“I don’t mind one-pass shot…But the one thing you don’t want to do is you don’t want to take highly contested shots,” Donovan said. “You don’t want to take a lot of shots in areas of the floor that are going to be low-percentage shots. And you want to be able to pull back and say, ‘You know what? Let’s get it to another person. Let’s get it to the other side. And then hopefully generate something there on the back end.’”