SACRAMENTO — There was silence inside the visiting locker room Tuesday night at Golden 1 Center.
The Sacramento Kings had just handed the Oklahoma City Thunder a stunning 94-86 loss. Russell Westbrook quickly completed his media interviews and left the premises, but his teammates who remained sat at their lockers and tried to understand how the Thunder had let a comfortable early lead disappear amid a sea of bricked jump shots against the less-talented Kings.
The result was a third straight loss for the Thunder (4-6) as its trio of stars — Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — combined to go 15-for-54 from the field.
“This is all new to everybody, new situations for everybody,” said Anthony, who along with George joined the team this summer. “Even though we losing games, I think it’s more of lessons being learned than actually losing the game.
“So right now, we’re learning a lesson in these last couple games.”
It’s no surprise the Thunder has lessons to be learned before it realizes its potential. What is surprising is that some already are questioning the fit of the team’s three stars, and the ability of Coach Billy Donovan to get the most out of them.
As Anthony’s close friend LeBron James can attest from both his initial season with the Miami Heat and his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it usually takes time for a new group to jell. Not everyone can be the Golden State Warriors, a team with perfectly complementing stars — and even the Warriors had their hiccups last season.
Westbrook, George and Anthony still are learning to play alongside one another. Old habits die hard, and as the Thunder started to struggle Tuesday, those old habits re-emerged.
The ball stopped. Tough individual forays into the paint were attempted. Low percentage isolation shots were thrown up. The result was a stagnant, stilted offensive performance that somehow failed to overcome the Kings.
“We have a whole year to figure it out,” George said. “We can’t really try to rush this. It’s something that’s step-by-step, day-by-day [and], at this point, game-by-game.
“We’ve got to slowly get on the same page.”
George is right. And, if history is any guide, the Thunder’s stars will do just that. Remarkably, each of them is averaging exactly 20.1 points per game, and taking just over 17 shots per game. It’s clear all of them are trying to involve the others, and eventually a rhythm and cadence will develop.
Donovan has proved to be a good NBA coach, but he didn’t get much time to work with the trio. Training camps were shortened this season, the Anthony trade happened just before camp, and Westbrook missed virtually all of it after getting a platelet-rich plasma injection in his knee.
That’s why none of these issues, in the long run, will prove to be the biggest challenges for Oklahoma City. Like James’s teams in Miami and Cleveland, the Thunder’s stars will eventually figure it out, and a nice run of success will soon follow — even if this group lacks the same kind of ultimate ceiling those James-led teams did.
No, Oklahoma City’s biggest obstacle likely will be the shortcomings of its supporting cast. The Thunder looks to be five players deep: its trio of stars, center Steven Adams, and backup point guard Raymond Felton.
Andre Roberson, who received a three-year, $30 million contract as a restricted free agent this past summer, remains a hopeless non-factor offensively, making it difficult to take advantage of his defensive gifts. Patrick Patterson, a versatile big who can guard both power forwards and centers while spacing the floor as a good three-point shooter, is displaying the same issues that plagued him over the second half of last season in Toronto when concerns about his knees abounded. Alex Abrines, the 24-year-old Spaniard who was being counted on to turn into a solid rotation piece, is shooting 30.8 percent from three-point range. Jerami Grant had a solid game Tuesday, finishing with 10 points and six rebounds, but is shooting 21.1 percent from three-point range.
Ultimately, if the Thunder is to challenge teams such as the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves — let alone the Warriors — in the unforgiving Western Conference, it will need more from its supporting talent.
In the meantime, however, its stars will continue to work through their issues. In an NBA season in which weird losses have become a daily occurrence, Oklahoma City’s was simply the latest example of a more talented team repeatedly tripping over its own feet against a lowly opponent.
That was of little consolation to the Thunder, however.
“It’s always tough in the moment,” Anthony said. “That’s the challenging part.
“If you could not just kinda think about the moment and think about the big picture, then you’ll be okay.”
For the Thunder, the big picture means figuring it all out in the next five months, before the playoffs begin. Until then — as Tuesday’s loss showed — there is plenty of learning to be done.
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