OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan had one obvious and all-encompassing takeaway following Thursday’s unimpressive loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Games look ugly when teams don’t make shots.
The Thunder had just fallen by 25 to a losing team on a night when they were missing Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook, both of whom suffered ankle sprains during the squad's previous game. OKC scored only 81 points in L.A. But it got its looks.
It just didn’t make shots – for whatever the reason.
Usual sharpshooter Alex Abrines hit only 1 of 6 3-pointers, even though most of his shots were open. Power forward Patrick Patterson missed all five of his attempts from long range. All of those were catch-and-shoots.
The Thunder wouldn’t have won if those balls which clanked iron actually graced nylon. But result would have been closer. The optics would have appeared better.
It might have looked something like Sunday, when the Thunder were missing Westbrook and Anthony again, when they went up against another losing team (this one, the Memphis Grizzlies, who are even a level below the Lakers), when they nailed a franchise record-tying 16 triples to carry the group to a 110-92 victory.
“Some of our guys that maybe didn’t have a great offensive night [against the Lakers] performed and played well and contributed,” Donovan said. “And that’s why I say it was a great team effort.”
Take a deep breath: Paul George, Alex Abrines, Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis and Terrance Ferguson.
Seven of the eight rotation players Donovan used Sunday sank 3-pointers. The only other time OKC has hit 16 in a game was when it matched that total in January of 2014 against the Miami Heat.
This time, George led the way with five. But he may have played a hand in even more for others.
The Thunder star was hot to begin the Lakers game, scoring 16 points during the first quarter of the eventual loss. But he got away from the types of shots he was taking as the night continued, something he mentioned both after the loss in L.A. and following Saturday’s practice. The Thunder’s new primary facilitator was going to find something that worked — and he was going to stick to it.
So, he tore Memphis apart with pick-and-rolls. He created jumpers for himself or found the screener, Steven Adams, or peppered to shooters around the edges.
“I wanted to see what I was missing, opportunities I was missing [against the Lakers]. And I thought I was a little out of my character with how I was trying to play,” George, who finished with 33 points and eight assists, said. “I thought tonight, I got my rhythm.”
It helped Patterson hit two 3s on the way to a season-high 14 points. It helped Abrines get to four 3-pointers, all in the first half.
The two role players who combined for 1 of 11 against the Lakers could not have looked more different from beyond the arc Sunday.
“If you see your team, everybody is scoring 3s, you also get confident. It’s like a team thing,” Abrines said. “So, I think today, that’s what happened.”
It’s especially significant for Abrines, who, for the first time this season, has received consistent playing time since Andre Roberson went down for the year with a knee injury.
The Thunder didn’t make a move at the trade deadline. They’ve missed out on buyout candidates like veteran swingman Joe Johnson and 31-year-old sharpshooter Marco Belinelli. Both have reportedly agreed to sign elsewhere.
Teams look better when they make shots. But it’s not just optics. Teams are better when they make shots. And teams most certainly fill in for injured stars more productively when they make shots.
The Thunder will be better if and when Abrines, Patterson, Grant, Huestis and whomever else makes shots, too. Sunday’s performance came against one of the NBA’s most depressing teams, a Memphis group that's now 19 games below .500. But it was, at the very least, an example of sinking the jumpers in need.
“We [have gotten] great 3-point looks, 3-point opportunities all season,” George said. “I thought tonight, we knocked them down. We were hot.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.