OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder have a hole in their starting lineup.
It’s not rookie wing Terrance Ferguson’s fault. The 19-year-old has been put in a position he’s not ready for, filling in for usual starting shooting guard Andre Roberson, who went down for the season after rupturing his left patellar tendon a little more than a week ago.
But the void exists. And it’s more than just a small crack.
Oklahoma City dropped its fourth consecutive game Sunday, falling 108-104 to the Los Angeles Lakers, a team 10 games below .500 and one the Thunder have beaten by double-digits in both of the two squads’ preceding matchups this season. Ferguson’s line looked familiar: zero points in 11 minutes played, clanking his only shot, a 3-pointer from the left wing.
“We’ve got to do a better job of bringing him along and helping him,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Life comes at you fast, and nobody expected this injury.”
Ferguson has now played 68 minutes during his five starts since Roberson went down. He’s gone scoreless in four of them. And he hasn’t made a shot in that time. His only two points came on free throws.
It’s added questions about what the Thunder can do inside a Roberson-less first unit.
“It’s something that we’ll have to look at, we’ll evaluate,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think Terrance has done a good job when he’s been in there … My bigger issue in that spot, it’s like the same thing with Andre. Andre didn’t get a lot of shots with that group, but it was his defense. And I think Terrance is learning and he’s getting better.”
Donovan’s not wrong about the defense.
The Lakers splashed in 13 of 30 3-pointers Sunday. The OKC defense once again struggled with its rotations, whether in pick-and-roll or in closing out on shooters.
Lining the perimeter is one of the many roles Roberson played. Donovan called him “maybe the best I’ve ever seen” at running shooters off the 3-point line. The Thunder have removed him and replaced him with players — whether in Ferguson or in second-year guard Alex Abrines, who played 26 minutes Sunday — who don’t do that at the same level.
Teams are shooting better than 40 percent on 3s against Oklahoma City over the past five games.
“I’m really concerned about that, because you want to protect the deep paint, and you don’t want to give up layups,” Donovan said. “But when the ball gets kicked back out, we have got to have more urgency to run people off the line. And we’re not running people off the line.”
Ferguson is far from the sole reason the Thunder lost Sunday.
They gave up 3s. They couldn’t get triples of their own against a Lakers defense which prioritized taking away passing lanes from Russell Westbrook, who finished with 36 points, five rebounds, nine assists and seven turnovers. Steven Adams, a usual hound down low, grabbed only two offensive boards, his lowest single-game total in almost a month. There were troubles all around.
After all, the Thunder did trounce the Lakers by 37 earlier this month — and Roberson didn’t play in that game, either.
“We’ve just got to defend better for a whole game,” Westbrook said. “When the game gets tough, we’re going to pick it up at the end. But when the game starts, you've got to be ready to go.”
The Lakers, however, still outscored OKC by 10 points while Ferguson was on the floor Sunday, tied for the worst plus-minus of any Thunder player. And that’s a theme.
The Thunder starters used to be the team's strength. The preferred first unit played a glut of minutes together, a total which would be the second highest for any lineup in the NBA had Roberson not gotten hurt. The starting lineup has outscored opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions this year, making it the NBA’s sixth-most successful fivesome of any which has played more than 200 minutes.
That same group — which includes Westbrook, Paul George, Anthony and Adams — minus Roberson and plus Ferguson is getting outscored by 11.3 points per 100.
It’s a swing of 25.5 points per 100 possessions, significantly larger than the difference between the league-best Golden State Warriors' point differential and league-worst Sacramento Kings'.
Turn any group's primary strength into a massive weakness, and that group will struggle. Donovan can turn to options. He could make a starting lineup change. He could mess with rotations. He talked about giving Anthony more minutes at small forward and using power forward Patrick Patterson more. The trade deadline is only days away. There could be changes there, too.
For now, though, the Thunder are still feeling the effects of midseason erosion.
“We’ve got to help bring [Ferguson] along,” Anthony said. “And the guys who do have experience have got to help him.”