It felt like last April all over again. The Lakers were in town, the arena was beyond loud and there was just another level of intensity on the floor. The officials swallowed their whistles for most the game, it was extremely physical and just in a general sense, it felt like a playoff game.
Even down to the halftime show, things felt the same as Peter Rabbit returned (he performed twice at halftime during the playoffs).
But just like last year, the Thunder came up juuuuuuuust a little short. Down three with 10 seconds left, Oklahoma City had two shots to tie, with both 3s — one from Kevin Durant and one from James Harden — rimming out. Hey, at least it wasn’t a Pau Gasol tip this time, right? Right?
“I got a good look. Once I let it go, I thought it was good and James felt the same way,” Durant said after the game. “It was kind of like the rest of the game, I just felt like nothing could go our way. We just have to keep pushing it along, keep fighting and staying positive.”
The Thunder battled the Lakers all afternoon, but this game really was a story of two different halves, and a bad third quarter. OKC led the Lakers 56-51 heading into the break and were playing some inspired basketball. They were struggling with Andrew Bynum inside, but Cole Aldrich came in and played 10 really nice minutes, Daequan Cook hit some 3s, Russell Westbrook had 17 and the Thunder just looked to have an edge to them.
But the second half, things changed. Mainly because Scott Brooks changed it. Interestingly, Brooks went with a small lineup almost right off the bat. Durant was at power forward, with Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka swapping turns playing the middle. Aldrich didn’t play a second in the last 24, after contributing so nicely in the first. I’m not going to sit here and call it a dumb decision or anything, just a curious one. Because regardless of what Brooks chose, the Thunder was right in the game. They played terrific second half defense allowing just 39 points and were withing two missed 3-pointers of sending this game to an extra frame. But the small lineup was kind of the story. It didn’t hurt the Thunder on the glass or defensively, because they held their own there. But Durant couldn’t really shake loose offensively, the Lakers made big adjustments to covering Westbrook (just five in the second half) and OKC had major issues scoring (31 points in the second half).
The obvious question people are asking is, would things have been different with Kendrick Perkins? The answer is, um, maybe. Perkins isn’t an offensive force by any means, but I’m sure Brooks would’ve went with a bigger lineup down the stretch if he had that option. The Collison-Ibaka tandem just doesn’t work that well inside, so OKC tries to create a mismatch and spread the floor by using Cook and James Harden at small forward. I just don’t think Brooks’ trusted the rookie Aldrich in that second half. Phil Jackson was small alongside with OKC playing Lamar Odom at power forward for most the second half so it’s not like the Thunder put themselves in some sort of huge mismatch though.
Always easy to second guess when it doesn’t completely work out though. A nice luxury I get and one Scott Brooks doesn’t.
- There’s just no denying that Ron Artest defends KD so incredibly well. It’s not a coincidence that Durant can never seem to break lose for 30 against the Lakers. Artest just cuts off KD’s path wherever he’s going. It’s like Artest somehow holds Durant with his body. It’s just terrific work. KD finished with 21 on 8-20 shooting, but missed a couple decent looks inside the lane at the rim. But Artest is just a bulldog. He tied up Durant on the first possession of the game and really bullied him for the entire game.
- You’ve got to admit, that was a decent look at a 3 by Durant to tie. Not a bad last second play there Scotty boy.
- I couldn’t have been more impressed by James Harden’s defense on Kobe Bryant (8-22 for just 17 points). It was almost to an inspiring level. He didn’t bite on pumps, didn’t let Kobe bully him in the post and you could tell Harden was under his skin. As another writer tweeted me, you wouldn’t ever see Steph Curry do that. Just sayin’.
- Harden had a nice game on the other end too with 14 points on 6-11 shooting. He made one terrific move on Kobe, crossing him big time but Harden just left a layup short. It would’ve been a huge play, but like the Thunder, was short.
- More defense talk: Thabo Sefolosha looked like his old self and then some. He had most the duty on Kobe and did an outstanding job. It was the defense we all fell in love with last year. Plus, Thabo dropped eight of the Thunder’s first 15 points including back-to-back 3s. For a second, I didn’t know where I was at.
- Phil Jackson before the game on Perkins’ playoff experience: “Kendrick’s a pretty young guy. I don’t know how much experience he has if Garnett’s not talking in his ear and sending him where to go. I think he’s got the notion but whether he can be a leader and lead that deal, that’s another story.”
- No Nazr Mohammed, even with Brooks saying he’d play. Instead, Aldrich got the call. And the rookie made a huge impact. He used his length really well defensively challenging shots and while his stat line won’t impress you, he set great screens and just made the Thunder bigger. It was kind of a preview of how OKC will be with Perkins. But it’ll be better and for longer stretches.
- A lot of people were griping to me via Twitter about not playing Mohammed and Nate Robinson. You all understand that they aren’t the things that OKC gave up Green for right? You realize this thing is about Perkins? Quit freaking people. Sheesh.
- When Daequan Cook shoots like that, he may just be my favorite human being ever. He’s giving the Thunder two or three 3s a night, which is kind of what we’ve dreamed of. And he hit one of those nice momentum 3s in the first half where the crowd is buzzing as he lines up for the shot. Seems like the Thunder never hits those.
- I’ve got to say this: Rumble seriously cracks me up.
- Serge Ibaka played his butt off in this one despite being put in a tough position. He grabbed 13 rebounds and had two blocks, but just six points. At center against the Lakers, he just didn’t have the chance to be an offensive weapon. That’s why him playing alongside Perkins will be great. Ibaka will have the chance to crash the glass more, pick-and-pop with Westbrook and play a little more open.
- You know, with this trade, OKC kind of got two new starters if you think about it. One of the biggest bonuses to it is that Serge Ibaka is now the Thunder’s starting power forward. I don’t think that was ever going to happen without Green being traded (or not re-signed). He got 37 minutes in this game which would have never happened. That’s such an underrated aspect.
- You can tell Scott Brooks is going to try and experiment with that second rotation now that Green is gone. Against Orlando, he went with Thabo at small forward. This one, he went with Cook. And that second unit just isn’t as good now. They helped pump up to a 14-point first half lead, but they don’t have the talent and diversity to keep it up for long stretches.
- That was Westbrook’s first lefty dunk that I can think of. An homage to Jeff Green, one of the league’s best off-hand dunkers, perhaps?
- As good a defender as Ibaka is, he gives away his low block position too easily. Example: right at the end of the first half. Gasol post Ibaka right in the middle of the lane and the Lakers threw a long pass that Gasol sealed Ibaka off for and then finished at the buzzer. Ibaka doesn’t look all that comfortable with fronting, so in turn, he tends to give up pretty nice post position. Then again, he was taking on Bynum and Gasol, which is not an easy order.
- OKC had 19 turnovers. Four of them charges.
- Also, the Thunder just couldn’t get to the line. This game was pretty physical with both teams combining to shoot just 34 free throws. OKC does that by itself most night. But when the Thunder only gets 16 free throw attempts, they become a very average offensive team.
This is the Thunder first three-game losing streak of the season, but it’s also the team’s toughest stretch. Two road games against the Spurs and Magic with the Lakers at home is about as difficult a run as you can get. And other than the Magic game, OKC had a shot against both the Lakers and Spurs. Literally. Both games OKC missed a game-tying 3-point attempt.
Losing games like this isn’t that tough to stomach because you know how good L.A. is and you know that the Thunder still has room to improve. We’re all looking forward to how the team performs with the new pieces in place, but the team made the statement today that they’re going to be fine without Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. I think some had their doubts after the Orlando game. But this group is still good regardless. So don’t start worrying about a late season collapse or anything. Get off this part of the schedule and back against less stellar teams and the Thunder will look a lot better.
Next up: Home against Indiana Wednesday.