Three Things to Know: Despite ugly loss to Magic, too early to panic for Thunder

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Oklahoma City had some ugly losses this season, but Wednesday to Orlando is a new low… and it’s still not time to panic. Every time you think “this is as ugly as the Thunder’s start to the season can get” they find a way to dig the hole just a little deeper. The Thunder had their shovels out Wednesday.

The Orlando Magic had dropped nine in a row when the Thunder came calling, but it didn’t matter. A resurgent Aaron Gordon dropped 40 points on OKC’s vaunted defense, and a 13-0 Orlando run late in the third, followed by another 13-0 one to start the fourth, made Russell Westbrook’s 20 points in the fourth quarter moot. Orlando got the win 121-108, handing Oklahoma City its third straight loss and seventh in a row on the road.

A team with this much talent as OKC should not be 8-12 and be looking up in the standings at a Rudy Gobert-less Jazz team. Coach Billy Donovan is frustrated — you know he has drawn up plays to use some combination of Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony to force defenses into difficult decisions, but they don’t run/execute them at all, and just play isolation ball.

And it’s still not time to panic.

The Thunder have lost close games and had ugly fourth quarters on both ends, but they still have the point differential of a team that should be 13-7. They are playing better than their record indicates, and most importantly the Thunder still have the third-best defense in the NBA. Those fundamentals point to the Thunder turning things around, likely sooner rather than later.

On offense, the Thunder are still trying to put the puzzle pieces together. They lead the league in isolation sets, and those have too often ended with a long midrange jumper or a contested shot closer to the basket. They don’t leverage all that star power to play off one another and get better looks.

I have written/said before (and I am far from alone) that this Thunder team looks like the 2010-11 Miami Heat when LeBron James first joined that team — those stars played next to each other, not with each other. “You take a turn, then I’ll take a turn.” It took them a long time (really until the middle of the following season) to learn to make the sacrifices needed to win. That team got off to a slow start over 20 games, 12-8, looked sloppy, and had tongues wagging about what was wrong.

That Heat team finished with 58 wins and made the NBA Finals.

I’m not saying these Thunder are destined for those heights (the Warriors are still in the way in the West), but there are 62 games left and plenty of time for the Thunder to find its groove, start moving the ball, use their stars together in plays that leave defenses without good options, and for the players to make sacrifices to win. The Thunder defense is already there, the offense will improve, and this team will rack up plenty of wins. No need to panic yet.

2) Anthony Davis ejected for first time in his career. If you’re going to get ejected and fined by the league office, be sure to get your money’s worth. Anthony Davis did just that.

Davis was frustrated by the lack of a call on his shot from the post (going against Karl-Anthony Towns), and he got his first technical arguing the lack of a call. Then when he was called for a foul on an attempted blocked shot on the other end, Davis lost it, and he got run.

Davis is going to get a healthy fine for this from the league, but he at least he got his money’s worth.

3) Hack-a-rookie: Wizards send Ben Simmons to free throw line NBA record 24 times in one quarter. And it almost worked. Down 24 points to the Sixers, Wizards coach Scott Brooks decided to make the desperation play — hack-a-Simmons. The Wizards started intentionally fouling Simmons every time down, and he went to the line an NBA record 24 times in the fourth quarter, hitting 12.

Here’s the thing — the strategy almost worked. The Wizards cut the 76er lead down to 3 and had a chance to steal a win, but couldn’t close it out.

When Dwight Howard/DeAndre Jordan/Andre Drummond (can’t do it to him anymore) were hacked in recent years, they usually were pulled by their coach because the strategy often worked. Philly coach Brett Brown said he left Simmons in for the learning experience, which is interesting. The way to stop “hack-a” is to make your foul shots, and that’s not something that has to be learned in game (as opposed to, say, properly defending a pick-and-roll at full speed). And as long as the Sixers held on for the win, Brown can say it was a learning experience and get away with it.

But hac-a-Simmons worked, so you can bet the Sixers will see it again.