In their home opener against the Knicks in October, Russell Westbrook started celebrating Carmelo Anthony's first 3-point make as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder before the shot even left his hand. In their first game together, Westbrook, Anthony and Paul George combined for 71 points. Westbrook recorded his 80th career triple-double. The Thunder won by 21 points.
"We came here for you," Anthony told Westbrook earlier this season. "We came here because we believe in what you can do and what you bring to the game, and we don't want you to stop doing that. We want you to be that player, we want you to be that person, and we'll fit in."
The acquisition of George and Anthony in two separate blockbuster trades this summer was supposed to bolster a Thunder roster that made the playoffs last year thanks to Westbrook's historic regular season, in which he became the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double. Almost a month into the 2017-18 season, the honeymoon period for the new Big Three in Oklahoma City is gone.
The Thunder are 6-7, and after a recent four-game losing streak, they needed a closed-door team meeting to clear the air. "It was just good to get everything out on the table," George said. "Especially where we're at right now, it's no good if we're bottling it up, because then we could carry it over to the next game and the next game. Just leave everything out in the open."
Following the meeting, the Thunder have responded with back-to-back wins over the Clippers and Mavericks. George exploded for 42 points against Los Angeles and followed that up with a 37-point performance against Dallas on Sunday.
The two victories have stabilized the situation in Oklahoma City for the time being, keeping the Thunder from falling deeper into a hole in the Western Conference standings. But one thing is clear so far with the new roster in Oklahoma City: The Thunder have struggled in the fourth quarter and in late-game clutch situations.
So far this season, the Thunder are 1-6 in games that have been within five points in the last five minutes (which is how the NBA defines "clutch" situations), a stark contrast to last season, when the team went 26-16 in such games. Westbrook was a one-man show in close games last season, leading the league in fourth-quarter scoring (10.0 points per game) and in total points in clutch situations (247 points).
Westbrook also achieved this by having the ball at an insane volume. Per NBA.com, his 62.3 percent usage rate in the clutch led all players with over 100 minutes in those situations (James Harden was second at 51.0 percent). In short, Westbrook had the ball at all times in the fourth quarter last season and was pretty good in late games.
With George and Anthony by his side, Westbrook's usage rate in clutch situations has gone down to 41.6 percent, which is still among the league leaders. The easy takeaway from the raw numbers so far this season is to say that the Thunder are struggling late in games because the three haven't figured out who should have the ball on offense. But that hasn't been true. The stats echo Anthony's words to Westbrook earlier this season: This is still his team.
Per NBA.com, in clutch situations, Westbrook has taken 19 shots, more than George (10 shots) and Anthony (8) combined. Westbrook has made 52.6 percent of those shots and has found the open man in late-game possessions, like this one against the Timberwolves when he found Anthony for a go-ahead 3-pointer. Westbrook is also taking almost seven fewer shots per game than last year and his scoring average is down from 31.6 points per game to 20.2. George and Anthony have both scored more points per game than Westbrook this season.
With three stars on the floor and the attention Westbrook draws on the perimeter, there will always be possessions that leave something to be desired in late-game situations for Oklahoma City, especially since so much of their offense still relies on Westbrook. But the Thunder aren't bad down the stretch on offense. They're also one of the best offensive teams in the league when Westbrook, George and Anthony are on the floor together. Per NBA.com, when the three stars have shared the floor, they're scoring 108.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would put them fourth in the league in offensive efficiency.
So, if the problem isn't how the trio is functioning on offense, then what is hampering the Thunder in the fourth quarter so far this season?
The answer is a defense that has been inconsistent in the fourth quarter. The overall numbers put the Thunder second in the league in defensive efficiency so far this season, although there's a lot of noise in that data, given early-season blowout wins over the Knicks, Bulls and Pacers. Zoom in, and the fourth quarter defensive numbers aren't kind to the Thunder.
In 43 fourth-quarter minutes when Westbrook, George and Anthony have been on the floor, the Thunder are allowing 127.2 points per 100 possessions and have a -22.6 net rating. Those are ugly numbers, and some of that points to Anthony as a defensive liability (as the video evidence shows), and also to the Thunder's depth problem.
Outside of the three stars and Steven Adams, Billy Donovan is hard-pressed to find too many other players in his rotation that he can trust, and so far, Oklahoma City has yet to produce a five-man lineup that has been functional in the fourth quarter based on the overall stats.
After years of being a reliable player off the bench, Patrick Patterson, who had knee surgery this offseason, has been a non-factor. Andre Roberson is a terrific defender, but he doesn't need to be guarded (25.0 percent from three, 38.0 percent from the free throw line) on one end of the floor, and his offensive flaws are exacerbated late in games when opposing defenders can sag off him on the perimeter. Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines and Josh Huestis round out the team's rotation.
The Thunder would do the George and Anthony trades over again without hesitation, even if both can become unrestricted free agents this offseason. It rejuvenated the roster and the franchise, and it likely nudged Westbrook toward signing his five-year extension to remain in Oklahoma City in September. But it has taken away from the team's depth, and early in the season, that appears to be a glaring flaw for this Thunder team.
There's still plenty of time to figure it out, and there's tremendous upside on this roster. On most nights, Westbrook, George or Anthony (or all three) can simply outscore opponents on the way to victory. But the Thunder don't exactly have a five-man lineup they are comfortable closing with just yet, and that might be a lingering issue throughout the season given the way the roster has been constructed.
For all of the excitement of George and Anthony's arrival, the Thunder haven't played like the next super team. After a home game against Chicago on Wednesday, they'll face a key three-game stretch against West opponents, with road games at San Antonio and New Orleans and then a much-anticipated home game against Kevin Durant and the Warriors next Wednesday.
This stretch will give us a glimpse into how this Thunder team might evolve and grow as the season moves along. But so far, it's been less about the offensive contribution of the three stars and more about configuring a roster and finding effective lineups around them.