How to weather a storm Oklahoma City Thunder style


May 11, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9) reacts in the fourth quarter in game four of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Thunder 101-99 to tie the series 2-2.Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of an injury-plagued start to the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are simply trying to weather the storm

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Maybe if James Harden was still playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, things would be different.

For a start, a team favored to win its division, and finish in the top half of the Western Conference, wouldn’t be treading water right now while its star players nursed injuries. The Oklahoma City Thunder would also be over the cap for facial hair, so you know, they have that going for them.

Harden and his wizard beard are now in Houston, of course, casting shots like he’s playing HORSE, while his former teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant get some more wear out of their dinner suits.

I suppose it’s all well and good to wish Harden was still on the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he’s never been one to chase on defense, and that might not help this club right now. It’s clear that they can still score, simply because the squad is so damn big. After all, any time anyone in the history of basketball has rolled out a starting frontcourt of giants, that group has managed to lob the ball through the hoop like it was branded with the word NERF, not Spalding. You don’t need to be basketball data geek to work that one out.

So while I want to talk about their scoring tactics, Oklahoma City’s defensive movement is really its calling card right now. If the bigs can help each other out under the hoop – and they have been doing this, almost too eagerly – rotating to the weak side and protecting the rim, it’s tough to see smaller clubs competing with them.

Just consider the trio of Steven Adams (7-foot), Serge Ibaka (6-foot-10) and Perry Jones (6-foot-11), who are as athletic and energetic as any frontcourt in the league. They’re also incredibly long and this stood out to me against the Denver Nuggets recently, when the group swayed about like towering palm trees in an Oklahoma storm, making it virtually impossible for anyone to pass by.

I’ll concede that they’ve been less imposing on transition defense, but it’s early days.

Surprisingly, these flailing arms and wide frames are also an advantage on offense. So whatever doubts you have about them as attacking players, especially when compared to genuine scorers in the conference like Blake Griffin or LaMarcus Aldridge, set them aside the simple reason that they’re motivated.

This isn’t about stuffing the stat sheet you realize, but a collective effort to keep this team afloat until the cavalry arrives. That mindset is evident right now in the way the Oklahoma City Thunder giants crash the boards and scrap for loose balls. Against the Nuggets, the starting frontcourt shot the ball like an in-the-mood Durant, combining for more than half of the team’s points.

Sure, they weren’t as good against the Nets, but still contributed just under half the club’s points on some decent shooting. 

So is their effort enough to keep the Thunder above .500?

Given the heavy loss to Brooklyn, it’s apparent that more might be needed against stronger offenses. This is where the Thunder’s backcourt needs to step up, provide direction and make better decisions. And it starts at the point. While he didn’t shoot well against the Nuggets, I thought Sebastian Telfair distributed the ball well and earned the starting spot until Westbrook’s return.

But he didn’t shoot well and, so, Coach Scott Brooks went with Reggie Jackson against the Nets, a move that proved to undermine the team’s attacking efficiency. Forget his average shooting for a second, which included 2-of-8 from behind the arc, Jackson turned the ball over seven times. I don’t care if you’re rusty or ate one too many onion burgers the night before. Seven turnovers just won’t cut it.

Listen, I’m reluctant to be too harsh on Jackson following his recent injury against the Raptors, but he also shot the ball 20 times in the Brooklyn game, almost twice as much as everyone else on the roster. When you have such mobile big men, it make no sense for your point guard to be hoisting the ball up this many times – unless your jersey has a ‘0’ on it.

Brooks needs to address this and his overall strategy for the Oklahoma City Thunder to make the best of November, which actually offers a reasonable schedule. With the frontcourt slapping their best feet forward and keeping the Thunder in the playoff race – provided Perry Jones returns quickly from his recent knock – the guards must batten down the hatches and play smart, mistake free basketball.

Or, incredibly, this team could be cut adrift before the Christmas tree goes up.