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NBA AM: Thunder Still Trying to Break Old Habits

For the Thunder, changing old habits is proving to be harder than expected.

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It’s Not As Easy As It Looks

The Oklahoma City Thunder had arguably the best offseason a team could dream of, they swapped a couple of young guys for All-Star forward Paul George, then pulled off another landslide deal swapping an overpriced reserve (who is a pretty solid player) for another All-Star forward in Carmelo Anthony.

The Thunder went from a one-man Russell Westbrook squad to a legitimate “Big Three” with championship potential. The key word there being potential.

The Thunder are 20 games into their season and sit at a disappointing 8-12. They have had some big wins in their first 20 games—wins that show the potential of the roster. They have also had some head-scratching losses including their latest to the Orlando Magic last night.

“There are certain things you have to do as it relates to the game of basketball,” Thunder coach Billy Donavan explained last night while trying to put perspective on his team’s up and down play.

“The game of basketball is like the house in gambling, you may be able to gamble a little bit here or there, and come out on top on a particular day, but over the long haul, there are habits that you have to establish because the game always wins out in the end.

“It’s impossible to be a really great basketball team without being able to have the stamina to do the things you’re talking about for 48 minutes. You can’t do it part of the time. You’ve got to do it the whole time, and for me as a coach, I feel responsible, in terms of being able to help them see that more clearly. For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to help them see that clearly enough, because, that’s what we have to do, there’s no getting around it, there’s nothing else. There’s no getting around it; this is what the game requires, this is what you have to do.

“Like I said, maybe on a given night, you don’t do those things, you may win, but you’re not going to win overall in the long haul, and win big like we’re trying to do. The group’s been great, their attitude’s been good, they’ve worked really hard, but we’ve got to build those habits, for a lengthy period of time, I’m not saying we’re going to be perfect, but we can certainly play more consistently.”

Without directing commentary at any one player, Donovan’s underlying message was pretty clear. The Thunder, when things get tough, revert to old habits rather than trusting the system and the process.

“Every time I ask them to do something they always respond,” Donavan said.”They’ve been great with that. It’s not the ‘buying in,’ I think it’s habits like you talked about. There’s certain things you always kind of revert to, you always revert back to habits. There’s certain things, like ‘Ok, they’re making a little bit of a run, alright, you know what, this is what I’m used to doing,’ instead of saying, ‘Geez, ok I got to pull back from here, and this is what may be better right now in this time.’ I think that’s what we’ve got to get to, is to understand to trust the process of playing the game the right way.”

Thunder guard Russel Westbrook agreed to some degree with his coach’s assessment.

“It really depends on your own personal habits,” Westbrook explained. “Honestly, coach is definitely right. It’s something that all of us have to individually figure out what that is, to be able to not fall back to.”

Westbrook is trying to put the onus on himself rather than his teammates.

“For us, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re ready to play,” Westbrook said. “Ready to play on both sides of the ball, to get us out of this funk. We got to lock in, that starts with me man and I take ownership of everything that’s going on because I’ve been here. I know the standards that we set here in Oklahoma City, and I have to set an example, so that starts with me and we’re going to turn this thing around.”

For his part, Anthony says it’s not fair to put everything on Westbrook’s shoulders.

“It’s too early for that, this is a new situation for all of us,” Anthony explained. “This is a new process, a new journey for all of us. We’re going to have moments like this. Unfortunately, everybody goes through it. We’re going through it right now. For us, it’s just a matter of sticking with it. We know exactly what we’re doing, what we’re not doing, what we could be doing better. It’s just a matter of being a little bit more consistent in doing those things. Yeah, it’s great that Russ wants to take it on his shoulders, but I won’t allow him to do that. It’s too much. I’ve been around this league for a long time to know that it’s not one person’s fault. We’re in this together; we committed to this together. We win together, we lose together.”

Anthony said he understood why there was so much external criticism.

“I think the outsiders want to see immediate satisfaction, even for us, we want it to work. But, as basketball players, as guys who’ve been around, as competitors, we know that something like this takes time. Anybody whoever’s been through it, anybody who ever came together like this at all, it happens to everybody. It’s unfortunate that it’s happening to us right now, but we’ll get it together. I know that for a fact, we’ll get it together.”

It’s easy from afar to see a star-studded roster and think it can all happen in an instant, but as the Thunder are realizing, it’s not easy to change years of patterns and behavior and to do it on the fly.

What’s lost on the Thunder’s situation is as much as Westbrook and George had a chance to work together in the offseason, Anthony arrived right before training camp opened, giving no extra time to try and find the chemistry and continuity other teams have developed already.

The Thunder are not ready to panic 20 games into the season, but there is no question that things start to get serious for the Thunder if they can’t turn the corner before their Christmas Day matchup against the Rockets.

As things stand today, the Thunder are one-and-a-half games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West and have dropped six of their last 10 games including three straight. The Thunder’s next three games are at home versus the Timberwolves, Spurs and Jazz, respectively.

If there was a time in the schedule to find their way, this might be it.

If they can’t find their way soon, the topic of making it work may change, especially with the potential free agency of George and even Anthony.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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