OKC Thunder: Dennis Schröder's deep balls the season turning point
Three nights before Thanksgiving last November, the Thunder was in San Francisco, playing the Warriors in their new Chase Center.
The Thunder was 5-10, and the rebuilding we all feared after the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook looked to be in full force. And that night didn’t seem to be a turning point.
Against the wiped-out Warriors – who sported a starting lineup of Glenn Robinson III, Eric Paschall, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks and Ky Bowman – the Thunder trailed by as many as 15 points.
Winter had arrived in Oklahoma City basketball.
Then with 6-1/2 minutes left in the game, and the Thunder trailing 92-82 to the ghosts of Golden State, Danilo Gallinari passed the ball to Dennis Schröder.
Schröder, in his second OKC season and his seventh NBA season, has been a very good player, both for the Hawks and the Thunder. But a deep threat he has not been.
Schröder, a quick, lethal penetrator, has a knack for scoring around the basket and hitting short jumpers over taller defenders. But as the NBA went more and more to a 3-point game, Schröder did not make the transition. Schröder entered this season shooting 32.5% on 3-pointers, and it’s not like he found his range in those first 15 games. Schröder had made just 26.2% of his deep balls in that 5-10 Thunder start.
But Schröder hasn’t been bashful about shooting 3-pointers anyway; he averaged 3.9 deep attempts per game in his final Hawks season, 4.6 in his first Thunder season and 4.3 shots in those first 15 games, despite the dismal accuracy.
So when Gallinari passed the ball to Schröder, there was little hesitation. Schröder launched from 27 feet.
And the Thunder season changed. Schröder made the 3-pointer, giving OKC some life against the Warriors. A few moments later, Chris Paul passed to Schröder, and he sank another 3-pointer, cutting Golden State’s lead to 97-93 with 2:17 left in the game.
The Thunder rallied. In every sense of the word. OKC won that game 100-97 and has been mostly winning ever since. Starting with that game in San Francisco, the Thunder is 35-14 and one of the best teams in the NBA.
And Schröder has been one of the best offensive players in the league. Starting with that Golden State game, Schröder has shot 41.2% from 3-point range. He’s still lightning in the paint, still a magician on floaters and high-arching shots in the paint. But he’s added a 3-point shot that makes him incredibly hard to guard.
Schröder during those 49 games (one of which he missed) has averaged 20.4 points. He’s been the best sixth man in the league. He’s been indispensable to the remarkable Thunder story.
Of course, that story stopped on March 11, when the NBA suspended play due to the coronavirus outbreak. Hope floats that the season will resume, perhaps in July and perhaps only with the playoffs.
The Thunder is safe in the postseason fold, with the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, as long as the NBA doesn’t condense the playoff field.
The Thunder is not a championship contender, but OKC absolutely could win a playoff series and at least challenge a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Western Conference semifinals. That’s if Schröder can keep his new skill humming.
Who knows how the break will affect shooters in general and newfound shooters in particular? Schröder’s shooting acumen is one of the biggest Thunder questions if the season resumes.
The Thunder is not a potent offensive team. Out of the 30 NBA teams, OKC ranks 13th in offensive efficiency. The Thunder has been successful by playing solid offense, solid defense and winning close games. One lone element, like Schroder’s 3-point shot, makes a huge difference on a limited roster, which exactly describes the Thunder.
Schröder has been a difference-maker this season. If his 3-point shot remains on target, the Thunder figures to be quite relevant if and when the NBA returns.