(J.G. and I got started talking about Game 1 and 2 and what adjustments should be made and whether or not we should feel good despite the 2-0 hole. Here’s the brilliant exchange.)
J.G.: So Royce, explain to me why after watching the Thunder fall to the defending champion Lakers by single digits in both games, with one of the games being a single possession loss where KD had a chance to sink a go-ahead three, ON THE ROAD no less, I feel strangely excited, enthusiastic, even a little giddy about the first playoff game in the Ford Center on Thursday night and the Thunder’s chances at pulling out a victory to close the series gap to 2-1. Perhaps the 1700* blocked shots and rabid defense has something to do with it?
*I may have accidentally added a few zeros there, though it looks about right.
Royce: I feel the same way. After Jeff Green’s shot went begging, I was surprised with myself. I wasn’t even mad. I actually look at my wife and said, “That was a good game” And that was it. I wasn’t upset and I wasn’t frustrated. I guess because I KNOW the team played their butts off and did everything in their power to win. If one shot drops, they’re heroes. That’s how basketball goes.
But now it shifts to the Ford Center and like you, I like OKC’s chances. Not just because of the big homecourt advantage, but because I think the Thunder proved to not just us, but themselves, that they can handle to spotlight of the playoffs. And not only that, handle it on probably the biggest stage. They listened to people tell them for three months they were too young and too inexperienced to handle playoff pressure. Well they handled it. Now they know they can. And now it’s just about playing basketball against another team, which when that’s all you line up, I think the Thunder matches up pretty well with LA.
OKC isn’t winning this series. We know that. But I think they’ll absolutely make it interesting. Game 1 proved that they could hang tough. Game 2 proved that they could win.
J.G.: I think that’s an excellent point. Except for that atrocious first quarter in Game 1 and Durant showing a bit of nerves, has the Thunder truly been outplayed or utterly dominated at any point in this series? The score and stat lines would absolutely say no, as would the good old eye test. It’s just that a few things were missing in those two first games that would have turned a great but losing effort into a tremendous and surprising, well-fought win. And speaking of those things…when is someone not named Durant or Westbrook going to make a shot or create–anything–on offense?
Obviously this team is staying in it with team-wide defense the likes of which I’ve never actually seen before from a scrappy unit who knows that they have to give it everything to stay competitive, but boy they could really make it a lot easier on themselves by making or creating a few easy buckets.
That other missing thing…the Thunderdome! I don’t care who owns what copyright or what it will take, but the Ford Center must be officially christened as the Thunderdome tomorrow night because it will be that kind of atmosphere that gives this team the added boost they need to get over the hump.
Royce: That’s the thing. If Jeff Green isn’t 5-96 or whatever he is, and just hits maybe five or six more shots, OKC could be up 2-0 in this thing. If James Harden hadn’t gone dark before Game 1 and gave OKC his usual 10 off the bench, the Thunder could be up 2-0. Heck, if KD knocks down just two or three more shots throughout the game that he normally makes (i.e. the missed dunk), this thing could at least be 1-1. I suppose that’s the life of good playoff basketball. When you lose a tight one, you’re going to replay the plays that didn’t go your way a hundred times.
Good teams make their own breaks and LA has gotten those. They are the championship team and they know how to make the little plays that win you games. I wrote about miscellaneous plays needing to go the Thunder’s way and so far, they haven’t. And that’s really been where OKC has failed. Yes, the offense has been bad. At times, it’s been juvenile. But despite that, the Thunder’s had a shot to win two games. I think that’s cause to be encouraged in a big way.
J.G.: James Harden, who’s that? But seriously, I honestly can’t believe this Thunder team has even been competitive in this series. And you’re absolutely right, when you lose you remember the what-ifs for, oh, probably the rest of our lives. No biggie.
And I think those little plays that you speak of are what separates a time-tested, championship winning squad (the Lakers) from a team that obviously lays it all out on the line but just honestly doesn’t know what to do when they find themselves in this caliber of a moment and competition. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have Kobe Bryant on your squad. I think those are the two things I’ve really learned from this series thus far.
What I don’t understand is why the Lakers refuse to pound the ball down low…or to accurately run the triangle offense and punish the Thunder inside. As bad as the Thunder’s offense has been, and don’t get me wrong, it’s been absolutely abysmal thus far, the Lakers has been just a few shots better. Like you said, I don’t think there’s any way the Thunder are winning this series. They’re just not there yet but you know what, they’re a lot closer than maybe any of us thought.
The Thunder’s weaknesses from the regular season have certainly been magnified and exploited (Inefficient half-court offense, no post presence–would this be a good spot for a “Five Factors of Playoff Basketball: The Bad News?”), but their strengths of defense (wow), not being intimidated on the road (which is just unheard of for a young, inexperienced team) and the force that is and can be Kevin Durant, ARE keeping them competitive against an albeit depleted championship caliber, best in the West, favorite to make the Finals.
So what do you think needs to change/an adjustment to make for Game 3? Actually play Thabo in the 4th and end the Jeff Green on Kobe experiment? Give Ibaka 30+ minutes no matter whose time that cuts into? Leave this, what was it, James Harden that you speak of, out on the floor long enough to try and adjust and overcome the moment of these playoffs so a third scoring threat can exist for the Thunder?
Royce: As for adjustments, I think there needs to be a willingness to adjust mid-game. I think Scott Brooks – who is a fantastic coach – came into this series of the mind to stick with what got him here. He’s hung with the same rotation, same lineups and same sub patterns. But I think he’s got to be flexible and let the game determine that.
For instance, I think Durant and Westbrook should’ve checked in one whistle earlier last night. OKC had momentum and could’ve really punched LA with about 8:30 left by going early to KD and Russ. But Brooks hung by his typically pattern and subbed them around seven minutes.
Obviously, we all know about going with Jeff Green over Thabo. It’s funny because so many curse Thabo for being in the game because of his offense, but when Brooks goes with the guy that can score, fans want it the other way. I’m quickly realizing that fans are the smartest basketball minds in the world and should be coaching every game. I do feel that Brooks could have done a little more offense for defense subbing late in the game, but he chose to have faith in the guys that got him there. Which is great because you want to show that kind of faith in your guys, but you’ve also got to make the tough choices and do what’s best for the team. I think it’s times like these I’m glad I’m not coaching. I couldn’t handle the second-guessing.
J.G.: Couldn’t agree more. It’s clear that this coaching staff excels at game-to-game adjustments, but mid-game adjustments just aren’t quite there yet. Well in theory I am okay with Jeff Green being in for offense, thus guarding Kobe…except he was/is shooting WORSE than Thabo. Thus the addition of Green’s “offense” isn’t more than the subtraction of Thabo’s definitely existing defense in this scenario.
I think the fans would be more okay with it if Green was actually scoring, though it’s clear that the “play the backup quarterback” mentality of us fans is always going to be smarter than the coaches, Royce. You know that. So who could second guess what’s always right?
Along those lines, do you think there are still individuals who don’t think the Thunder need/could really use a wide bodied post presence in the paint after the Bynum/Gasol destruction in Game 1 and the Gasol mini-but-could-have-been-worse-had-he-actually-got-the-ball owning of the paint in Game 2? That being the third thing that is CLEARLY missing from this team that could put them over the top in my opinion.
Royce: Yeah in my notes for Game 2, I had something written that I was going to say how much this proves OKC needs just not a rim-protecting inside presence (which I think they have in Ibaka), but a post defender that can be relied on to score on the other end. That’s what we’re seeing with OKC’s offense. It’s all perimeter oriented and there’s little opportunity to dump the ball into the post and get out of the way. LA has that luxury. They can drop it to Bynum or Gasol and just let them work. The Thunder doesn’t have that ability. Heck, 25 or so other teams don’t have that ability.
But I think it’s becoming more clear that inside help is something that needs to be addressed. This team is good as is, and honestly I’m not sure how much the record will improve next year. But in order to get over the preverbial playoff hump, you’ve got to have specific pieces that can be relied upon. And right now, I think OKC has four out of five of those.