A lot like me after playing three hours of pick-up ball, Oklahoma City just broke down and ran out of gas in the last 10 minutes against Portland tonight. The Thunder hung tight for three quarters, trading buckets and staying within six or so points, but a 14-2 run to start the fourth did the Thunder in as Portland won 106-92.
And honestly, I can’t really blame them. They were visibly worn out. The Blazers were fresh and motivated and the Thunder just played a tough 48 minute grinder on the road against the league’s best team. They did everything they could to hang tough but shooting 39 percent again, getting outrebounded and hitting just one three hurt. And by “hurt” I mean “was the difference in the game.”
The Thunder just weren’t themselves on the glass. Portland outrebounded OKC by 11 and seemed to reel in every tipped or loose rebound. The ball just didn’t bounce right for the Thunder. Kevin Durant struggled shooting the ball again. So did Russell Westbrook. So did Jeff Green. But again, they worked hard, didn’t turn it over much (just 12 turnovers), hit free throws (27-32) and stayed in the game – for the most part. So that’s good. I guess.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I just do not get why OKC struggles to close the first half. Much like last night in Los Angeles – and about 25 other games for that matter – instead of going into the locker room down two or four, the Blazers went on a 7-0 run before the horn and took a 53-46 lead to halftime. The Thunder gets sloppy, throws the ball away and doesn’t secure rebounds and the other guy capitalizes on that lapse stretching out a little cushion. Frustrating.
One thing that was already evident, but was clearly exposed on this little two game jaunt is the Thunder’s lack of depth. And when you’re playing back-to-back games on the road against really good, deep teams, that’s going to kill. OKC went just eight deep (nine really, but Damien “White Flag” Wilkins in garbage time doesn’t count) and went just eight deep last night in L.A. The Blazers were getting solid contribution from nine while the Thunder was really just getting it from four or five. Nick Collison was in foul trouble which limited him. Nenad Krstic picked up a few quick ticks. We had a Chris Wilcox sighting and he gave good minutes in the first half, but didn’t come back in again until the start of the fourth. Which was exactly the time the Blazers put the game away. The bench has been good at times with Joe Smith (where was he?) and Earl Watson giving great minutes, but it’s spotty. And that’s a problem.
Like I said, OKC shot the ball poorly. Again. Durant was 6-15. Green was 7-20. Westbrook was 5-15. The only three came from Wilkins. A lot of KD’s off night was due to the fact the Blazers suffocated him, sending multiple guys running at him and trying to frustrate him. Durant rarely got a clean look and he had to force up some shots and battle and bang in the paint. But hey, you can’t score 30 every night. And heck, 20 points and seven boards for an off night is pretty solid.
I know a lot of people are wondering if Westbrook is hitting the proverbial “rookie wall.” I say no. Sure he had his fourth straight sub-par shooting game, but he played really solid tonight. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds (eight offensive), three assists and three turnovers. That’s a heckuva line for a point man. He wasn’t hitting his pull-up jumpers, so he did what mature scorers do: He got to the line. Westbrook cashed in 11 of 12 free throw attempts and made up for his off shooting with it. That’s what the good ones do. I think Russell will really enjoy the All-Star break and the days off not because he needs it physically, but just to clear his mind. He has started to force things a bit instead of playing within the flow and I think the break will really refresh him.
Kyle Weaver played pretty good defense again on Brandon Roy (8-18, 22 points), but he really needs to find that jumper. He’s short on everything. I’m no David Thorpe, but it looks to me like he’s releasing the ball too late. He’s thinking and trying to follow through so much that he’s flipping the wrist not at his peak, but instead right when his momentum starts to bring him down. Which in turn causes you to be short. He’s got a little bit of a slow, off-the-chin release so it warrants that type of shot, but he needs either more lift or better timing when he lets go. Teams are sagging off him and giving him that look. He’s got to start hitting it.
As for team defense, besides the rotations getting incredibly less crisp in the fourth, it was a decent effort. But OKC loves to chase the ball. One guy penetrates and the whole group collapses like Gerald Wallace’s lung (too soon?) and leaves a good shooter all alone for three. Obviously when you’re beat, you call for help and somebody has to cut off the lane to the bucket. But watching OU play tonight, their help defense is outstanding. Somebody always rotates off to have a hand in the face of the shooter on a kick-out. And when that guy swings it, somebody else pulls off and covers him. The whole defense is scrambling and helping, but they don’t give up that wide open look. Clearly, it’s a little tougher to guard the Portland Trail Blazers than the Baylor Bears, but that’s not the point. Just another little thing this young team is working to get better at.
You’ve got to give it up to Greg Oden though. After totally getting shown up by KD in the first meeting, it looked like he played with much more energy and aggressiveness. He had 16 and 10 with three blocks and really made his presence felt down low. Between him, Joel Pryzbilla and LaMarcus Aldridge, those three had 33 rebounds. For perspective, OKC had 36. And Russell Westbrook was the leading rebounder by five. Yeah, that’s not good.
In the end, it’s what we expected. Which is OK. For a while there I really thought OKC had a chance. If Durant could heat up and the big boys could get tough in the paint and start grabbing some of those misses, the Thunder could sneak out with it. But like a ’92 Ford Pinto on a road trip, they just broke down.
This All-Star break comes at a good time for the Thunder. They’ve obviously played really well in 2009 but they got beat up the last two nights. Over the next six days some guys will be goofing off in Arizona hanging around really good players and others will get to relax and refresh at home. They can get their minds cleared, their bruises healed and hopefully come out and play the last 29 with a lot of fire.