Defense Has Hindered Thunder’s Final Play-In Push

It’s been a slow start for the Oklahoma City Thunder since the break, as they’ve dropped each of their four games since that weekend. They’re now third to last in the West with a tough slate of games ahead.

There’s a few reasons the Thunder have struggled over the past four games, most notably due to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missing three of those four with a pair of injuries. Furthermore, each of these games has come against a team that’s currently in the Western Conference postseason picture.

With that in mind, this team has shown all year that it’s competitive enough to overcome adversity and win games against playoff teams, even without Gilgeous-Alexander. What’s been the issue of late is the defense.

For most of the season, Oklahoma City has been a top 10 defensive team. With the challenges rosters face throughout a given year, being a good defensive group is something that always keeps a team consistently competitive.

More recently, the Thunder haven’t been able to rely on the defense as an anchor. During this four-game stretch, the inability to string together stops has been detrimental. None of these contests have been blowouts, as OKC has been able to keep things close. However, as soon as the Thunder have gotten within striking distance, they’ve either allowed a bucket or fouled and sent their opponents to the line.

In fact, the Thunder have committed 86 fouls in the past four games that have led to 28.3 free throw attempts per game for the teams they’re going up against. Oklahoma City has also allowed 53 offensive rebounds that have resulted in a total of 68 second chance points during this stretch. As such, the Thunder have allowed just under 90 field goal attempts per game while their opponents have shot just over 48% from the floor.

Simply put, allowing 120 or more points in every game since the break has led to a bottom 10 defensive rating for the Thunder during this stretch. They’ve allowed a 65-point half in three of these four contests and 34.3 points on average in the first quarter. Oklahoma City has trailed in all but one of these contests entering the second quarter.

Luckily for the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander should return to action in the near future, which should help on both ends. He generally dictates the flow of the game when he’s on the floor, which puts Oklahoma City in its comfort zone defensively. He’s also been an underrated defender this season, as one of the most disruptive guards in the league on that end.

Furthermore, there’s been quite a few times this season in which he’s been able to provide enough of a scoring punch that a down defensive night can be overcome. Without him, the Thunder don’t have the firepower to outscore opponents in a shootout.

The one game Gilgeous-Alexander has played during the four-game stretch was the one in which the Thunder came closest to winning, as they dropped the contest in overtime.

When it comes to sample size, the 57 games before the break in which the Thunder played great defense should be considered more heavily than the recent stretch. However, it is something the team needs to adjust quickly moving forward if the play-in is something Oklahoma City wants to compete for.