OKLAHOMA CITY -- There has been clear progress for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the last month, which is what makes performances like Tuesday's against the Portland Trail Blazers, a 117-106 clinic by the visitors, so frustrating.
The Thunder spent the first 30 or so games of the season as a shockingly mediocre offensive team, clinging to life in the Western Conference almost entirely on the back of an elite defense. But as they've finally clicked and grown into the explosive offensive team they were expected to be, they've slipped significantly on the other side of the floor. The message from the locker room Tuesday cited a lack of energy and effort, easily identifiable culprits, albeit ones that are hard to explain.
"To sit here and try and pinpoint that is ... I think the easiest answer is, it happens," Carmelo Anthony said. "It's happened to us these past two games, and we've got to figure out a way to not allow it to happen. Maybe know that it's there, maybe understand it happens throughout the course of a season, but try to do some things where we do bring the energy, where we do bring the effort. We should never have a lack of effort out there."
Russell Westbrook almost always is the tone-setter for the Thunder with his intensity and energy, and while he was solid against Portland -- 22 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists -- there were multiple occasions where Westbrook showed frustration with teammates not being in the right spots or getting into a set with the right timing. Energy is Westbrook's basketball identity, and with that being a clear issue for the Thunder on Tuesday, he wasn't happy about it. Following the game, Westbrook left the locker room via a back door before the room opened to the media for postgame availability.
"I thought at times we really tried to turn it on, on both offense and defense at times," coach Billy Donovan said. "It's really difficult to do that at this level."
Since Dec. 16, the Thunder have featured the best offense in the league, scoring 114.2 points per 100 possessions. It's been a striking improvement from the disjointed, disconnected offense they were operating within before that, with Westbrook, Anthony and Paul George all getting settled and comfortable playing with each other.
Over that same span, they're 19th in defense, allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Some of that can be connected to defensive stopper Andre Roberson missing the last five games, but there also has been a clear "slippage," as Donovan called it, in the finer details. The Thunder's potential to be elite resides in them being a dominant two-way team, but as they take turns playing well on one side but not the other, they drop down to a very mediocre one.
As the offense has clicked, with their big three finding its rhythm, the Thunder can make the game look easy. The ball moves freely, the players flow around the floor, and buckets come rapid fire. Westbrook plays downhill, George slithers around screens and Anthony pops catch-and-shoot 3s. But when the shots don't fall, a plan of just outscoring the opponent falls flat. Against Portland, that seemed to be the idea, but good looks didn't go, leaving the Thunder playing from behind the entire second half.
"I wouldn't even put it on that," George said of the defense relaxing because of the offensive improvement. "Just for whatever reason, we've slipped defensively. I wouldn't say it's because offensively we've grown, that we've slacked. We've had the same approach all year on the defensive end. We're just not getting it done, simple as that."
There remains a "two steps forward, one step back" kind of feel around this team, with the engine revving up to the point it seems they're ready for liftoff, but then they ground themselves for maintenance. They're 14-7 since Dec. 1 and have at least answered the question of whether this collection of players would even work at all.
The Thunder are decidedly a good team, one that can beat anyone on any given night. Their problem, and the thing standing in the way of OKC potentially being a great team, is playing great on both ends of the floor.