OKLAHOMA CITY -- The ball kicked out to Carmelo Anthony at the top of the key with 14 seconds on the shot clock, and a justifiably wide open straightaway 3-pointer was in front of him. With no hesitation, Anthony caught the pass and fired the ball to his right to an even more open Alex Abrines.
The shot went up, clanging off the back iron.
Two quarters later, a similar situation presented itself. The ball found Anthony, who was open enough to shoot, but he swung it instantly to a more open Abrines. This time, the Spanish sharpshooter, who has been slumping, paid it off.
It was a matter of process over results, a tangible win for the message Billy Donovan has been hammering away at for the last month. And it's not that it was pretty -- at all -- for the Oklahoma City Thunder in their 90-87 win over the Spurs' B-team, but stylistically, the Thunder were different. The ball moved from side to side, the pass was trusted, the open man found more times than not. The Thunder shot the ball miserably -- especially Paul George, who was 2-of-17. But again, in a big spot late in the fourth quarter, Russell Westbrook turned down what would've been a highly contested shot in the paint to kick to a wide open George. He took one dribble, and a deep breath, and drained a 3 to put the Thunder up eight. It also gave Westbrook his 10th assist, and a seventh triple-double on the season.
So much of what Donovan has preached has been "habits" with his stars. Taking the habitual nature to step into a contested midrange 2-pointer and turning it into a reversal to the other side of the floor as part of the hunt for a better shot. The process has been painful at times, with clear hesitation brewing in Westbrook and Anthony specifically.
Anthony has had to take the adjustment to heart the most, with it bearing out obviously over the last two games. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, and then against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, Anthony has attempted a total of 17 shots, scoring 18 points. It's the first time in his 15-year NBA career that Anthony has scored in single digits in consecutive games. He has been clearly intentional with making extra passes, resisting the outside-the-paint, off-the-dribble jumper, to be more selective for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
"I think at this point, this process we're still trying to figure it out, still trying to see how we want to play. So we're still trying different things out there," Anthony said. "For me personally, it's just about doing something different, seeing where the team really needs me on a night-to-night basis. And just be willing to do that and being willing to sacrifice, not every night having to score 20 or 30 points, and I'm good with that, it's a good feeling as long as we're winning. I think these past couple games that we've been winning, we've been moving the ball well and putting a complete game together, and as a result, have won two in a row."
The Thunder's offensive struggles have been shocking this season, with them in the bottom third of the league in efficiency (23rd after Sunday's games) despite a stacked roster of offensive stars. Where they've failed most specifically, is in settling. They fall back to isolation non-paint 2-pointers, which is a low-efficiency shot and also directly impacts their ability to get to the free throw line. It has become a bit of a math equation the Thunder are failing. They have wonderful talent, but even that can't overcome the law of averages. When you take low-efficiency shots, eventually you get low-efficiency offense.
The last two games, a small sample no doubt, the Thunder have made it a focus to continue to trust, even if the ball doesn't go in. Instead of drifting away from passing and movement after a few empty possessions to try to just let talent take over, they've been more resolute in sticking with it.
"I think we're building in the right direction," George said. "We're not caring who's getting shots. The ball is just moving. I mean, you see it, Melo's been taking a huge sacrifice, in terms of his shots and his ability to move and make plays. Russ, myself, man, it's moving. And you're going to see guys like Steven [Adams] being on that better end of it from us playing this attack, penetrate and kick and try to find our teammates."
As George noted, a big beneficiary of the Thunder's offensive adjustment has been Steven Adams, who scored a career-high 27 on 11-of-11 shooting against the Wolves, and followed that with 19 on 8-of-13 against the Spurs. With the floor spaced and more two-man action involving him and George, Adams has found opportunities in the paint and at the rim. It's not a coincidence that as Anthony's shots have gone down, Adams' shots have gone up. The Thunder have traded Anthony's low-efficiency non-paint jumpers, for Adams' high efficiency shots at the rim.
"I think we're trusting. There's a lot more trust being built," George said. "Which is what was going to come around. We've been in the battles, been on the losing end, certain stuff not working, and you just tinker stuff, work off stuff and figure out ways to win."
There's no avoiding that the Thunder very nearly lost to a Spurs team sitting Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Rudy Gay for the entire game and with key players Kyle Anderson, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Patty Mills playing no more than six minutes in the second half. They didn't play well. They shot the ball horribly, specifically George. But as ugly as it was, they probably would've lost this game two weeks ago. As a double-digit lead slipped, they would've fallen onto old habits and hoped great players could make tough shots. Instead, with George's dagger 3 the successful example, they stuck with it.
In the locker room after the game, Westbrook was asked if he feels like the Thunder have made any steps in the right direction, and if so, what they were. His answer was short and simple, but was perfect.
"Yeah," he said. "Losses turned into wins."