The Oklahoma City Thunder's two worst losses this season -- a 26-point loss to the Golden State Warriors in Kevin Durant's first game against his former team last month and a 19-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday night -- share something in common, and it's not just that I happened to attend both of them.
Those performances were also Oklahoma City's two worst games of the season in terms of finishing around the basket. That fact has important implications for how teams defend the Thunder and MVP candidate Russell Westbrook -- who had two of his three worst games of the season by game score at Golden State and Portland -- going forward.
Oklahoma City lives in the painted area
In a league obsessed with the 3-pointer, the Thunder have never been that team, and this season -- without Durant -- they are especially anemic from outside. While Oklahoma City ranks in the middle of the pack in attempting 3s, the team's 32.8 percent accuracy ranks 26th in the league.
Instead, the Thunder's offense relies on beating a path to the rim. Oklahoma City takes a league-high 38.3 percent of its shots in the restricted area, per NBA.com/Stats.
While Westbrook is something of a volume finisher -- his 57.3 percent shooting on those attempts is worse than league average (60.2 percent) -- they're such good shots that merely attempting them has been a good thing for the Thunder, except against the Warriors and Blazers.
Packing the paint against Oklahoma City
The combination of the Thunder's non-shooting and effectiveness getting to the basket leads to an inevitable conclusion: The best way to stop Oklahoma City is to pack the paint defensively, sagging off shooters and creating extra resistance around the rim.
Nobody has achieved that better than Portland did Tuesday. After the game, Blazers coach Terry Stotts highlighted his team's "presence in the paint -- not just the guy guarding [Westbrook] or the screener, but everybody. I thought that was effective for us."
What did that look like?
In the play above, Westbrook has drawn a favorable switch, getting matched up against Portland center Mason Plumlee. But the slower Plumlee has reinforcements. All four other Blazers have at least one foot in the paint, including Allen Crabbe playing far off his assignment (Andre Roberson, a 30.4 percent 3-point shooter).
With so much help behind him, Plumlee could comfortably play up on Westbrook and force him to shoot a contested jumper that the Thunder guard missed.
When Westbrook did get into the paint, he found a big man in his path with enough help to recover and defend after a Westbrook pass. In this case, Enes Kanter missed a contested attempt over Meyers Leonard.
Despite lacking a strong shot blocker, Portland actually has surrendered the league's second-lowest shooting percentage in the restricted area at 55.8 percent this season. (The Utah Jazz, who host the Thunder tonight, are at 54.9 percent behind the more traditional rim protection of Rudy Gobert.)
Against Oklahoma City, the Blazers were able to improve on that strong mark. The Thunder shot 43.2 percent, their season-worst mark, in the restricted area.
Portland took advantage of the absence of Oklahoma City shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who leads the team with 51 3-pointers, to pack the paint more than normal. But the Warriors showed earlier this season the ability to generate similar results against a full-strength Thunder roster. Golden State did it by aggressively playing off Roberson and also conceding open 3s to rookie Domantas Sabonis, who's shot 42.4 percent from beyond the arc this season but averaged just one make per game.
On the above play, for example, Draymond Green sits between Westbrook and the paint, paying little attention to his man (Sabonis) as Durant defends two Oklahoma City players while still getting in position to help.
Can the Thunder beat a packed paint?
Oklahoma City can mitigate the effect of aggressive paint-packing with good player movement off the ball, which makes it more difficult for one defender to handle two players.
Overall, the Thunder have been reasonably effective offensively with Westbrook on the court, posting a 105.6 offensive rating, which would be good for 11th in the NBA this season. With Westbrook on the bench their offense collapses, averaging just 93.5 points per 100 possessions.
Still, as the season goes on Oklahoma City can expect to see more teams following the lead of the Blazers and Warriors. Expect teams to be particularly aggressive packing the paint come the playoffs, when they'll have more time to game-plan for Oklahoma City. Already, NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes that the Thunder have the worst record of any current Western Conference playoff team against the rest of the conference's top eight, in large part because of their poor offense -- with games against Golden State and Portland factoring heavily into that.
If Oklahoma City is to have success in the postseason, the team will have to find out a way to pull opponents away from the basket by making enough 3s to make them think twice about packing the paint.