In a strange way, this was a big time step in the right direction for Oklahoma City. So the final score was 105-98 and the Thunder really didn’t have a realistic chance to win down the stretch. OKC was in it for 48 minutes against the league’s best team on the road – and the Thunder didn’t even play that well. (Too bad they were on the road because they could have gotten their first taste of real Oklahoma today with four tornadoes touching down in the city. I bet they were bummed. Anyway…)
Now don’t get me wrong, it kind of felt like Los Angeles was just cruising at points and was never in jeopardy of letting it get close. They had total control in the second half and for three or four minute stretches it seemed like they could just turn it on and spit out six straight. But OKC scrapped and wouldn’t lay down and die. And that’s one of the many things there is to love about these guys.
With Kevin Durant having an uncharacteristic off night hitting 10 of 23 shots (and by “off night” he still finished with 31 points and 10 boards, making it five straight 30 point games) and Russell Westbrook going 5-16 and Jeff Green 6-14 and the team shooting 40 percent, it’s really amazing that the Thunder was even in it at all down the stretch. Especially when your opponent shoots 46 percent and outrebounds you by 10.
But pure grit and scrappiness (is that a word?) is what did it. OKC took care of the ball, hit free throws and the big three put up solid numbers despite shooting poorly. Durant had the 31 and 10, Green had 16 points, eight boards and five assists and Westbrook was in triple-double territory again with 17-9-7. They all hung in there and played gutty, hard basketball despite shooting a combined 39 percent. That’s what I was really thrilled about. Even though they were all “off,” they still cashed in really solid performances. That’s the type of stuff winning teams do. The Thunder is getting there.
But boy, there were so many plays that should they have gone the Thunder’s way, this thing could have been tight. Kyle Weaver missed about 19 wide open looks. (And I don’t mean to rip Weaver because I thought he worked extremely hard on Kobe Bryant and he needs to take those shots – it would just be nice if he’d hit a couple of them. Keep shooting it young fella.) Every loose ball went L.A.’s way. The Thunder didn’t finish 3-on-2 fast breaks. They missed open looks. They didn’t rebound. The last sequence – if Nenad Krstic secures that board and OKC hits a three, it’s a two-point game with a few seconds left and the Lakers have to hit free throws to finish it off. As frustrating as it seemed OKC played, they were in it and kind of had a chance to win it if five or six plays go their way. That’s really, really encouraging. Remember, this was the Lakers in the Staples Center. You can take more from this loss than you can from Sunday’s win over Sacramento. You really can.
Let’s revisit the nine goals I had before the game:
1. Defend Kobe. Weaver worked really hard. He tried to body him up, but Kobe abused him in the post. Bryant is so physical that he can create his shot with one forearm shiver and a step back. I used to think guys like Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell were really dirty players (don’t get me wrong, they’ve taken their fair share of cheap shots) but in a way, you kind of have to dirty it up to defend Kobe. He’s going to be physical. He’s going to bump and push and grab. He never gets tagged for that stuff because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant. But Weaver needs to just let it fly and push back. Throw a bow up there when you secure a rebound. Don’t be dirty per se, but be physical and establish yourself defensively. That’s something Desmond Mason sure does/did and it’s something Weaver will learn. Kobe had 34 on 13-26 shooting, but at times the Thunder did a nice job. I actually thought Durant did the best job on him. KD’s length changed a couple shots and caused Kobe to airball two.
2. Be in it at halftime. We knew the Lakers would go on a run. And they did. In the last four minutes of the first half, the score was 43-41, OKC leading. Then L.A. went on a 19-4 run to close the half. I thought they’d come out firing in the first quarter, but it turns out they saved their 35-22 quarter for the second. It wound up being a 60-47 deficit for the Thunder, which was manageable. It wasn’t a “bad” 13-point margin, if you know what I mean. They were in it.
3. Hold the Lakers to under 105 points. COME ON! Sheesh. Had Pau Gasol not gotten a trash bucket on a jump ball with three seconds left, OKC would have nailed it. So I’m calling this a check. The Thunder played a great first quarter defensively holding L.A. to 25 points. Not so much in the second, but then just 20 in the third and 25 in the fourth. The Thunder held the Lakers to four below their season average and overall, played pretty solid defense. You could see how hard OKC was working defensively and as tough a team offensively as L.A. is, I was pleased.
4. Outrebound them. Here was your first major difference. The Lakers won the board war 56-46, but really did work on the offensive glass. The Lakers scored 10 of their first 18 on second chance looks. They had 16 offensive rebounds and just clearly overmatched the hard working Thunder players on the glass.
5. Get to the line. Big time check here. This is how OKC kept it close. L.A. hit 10 of 17 from the line. The Thunder hit 21 of 24, with KD scoring 10 of his 31 at the line. For some reason, Jeff Green only got to the line once for the second straight game (and it was because of a defensive three seconds to boot), which is weird.
6. Turn it over fewer than 15 times. Check – just 13 turnovers. That and the free throw shooting are your two main reasons that this thing was close at the end. Bravo Thunder. Brav-o.
7. Do better than “decent” on the blocks against Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Like the rebounding thing, this just didn’t happen. Gasol had his way with the OKC post men. Nick Collison had four fouls as soon as he stepped off the bus. Nick just couldn’t defend him. Krstic did a little better job, but again, we were looking for better than decent. Gasol finished with 22 and 14 and Odom with 12 and 18. Those were the two places OKC didn’t match up well and it showed.
8. Get some easy buckets. The Thunder got out and ran – some. And when they did, it worked for the most part. It was clear about halfway through the first quarter – the Thunder was just not going to be able to execute consistently in the halfcourt. They needed to run and get points in transition as much as possible. I’m guessing, but I bet seven or eight of OKC’s 10 offensive boards were off missed layups or runner on a fast break. You’ve got to match a perfect combo of running and halfcourt sets when your overmatched and I thought the Thunder did a pretty good job of it.
9. Just have a chance. I wanted to be watching and thinking, “Just get a stop and a bucket here and we can make it interesting,” and that’s exactly what happened. OKC played an excellent game considering the opponent. I’m sure the Thunder’s 40 percent from the field had something to do with L.A.’s solid defense. But OKC took care of the ball and took care of things they could control. They can’t control Kobe Bryant’s unbelievable talent and they can’t control being totally overmatched physically on the blocks. But they executed a solid game plan and was in it at the end. And against the league’s best team, that’s all we could really ask for.
Oklahoma City takes a short trip north to take on the Blazers again tomorrow night. It’ll be tough to regroup from this grueler, but I think Brooks will have them ready to compete again.