It’s a good lesson for these young Thunder: closing is hard to do.
Oklahoma City saved its most erratic, incomplete game for Monday night, which of course was the first opportunity to finish off the Nuggets and move on to the next challenge. Credit the Nuggets of course though for never once looking defeated. Those guys have a good amount of pride and definitely did not want this OKC team celebrating a series win on their floor.
But while the Thunder played an incredibly inconsistent, forced game, they had every opportunity to snatch away this game from the Nuggets. Russell Westbrook had a heave at the buzzer that could have sent it to overtime catch backboard and a little iron, but it was not meant to be. Game 5 in OKC, here we come.
The game was close throughout and while the Thunder piled up stops, they never took advantage and stretched out to a lead of much more than four or five. OKC played with fire the entire night, eventually letting the Nuggets turn on the propane with an 11-0 run to end the third and start the fourth quarter. Denver led throughout the fourth with the lead swelling to as much as 10 and nine with two minutes left. The Thunder wouldn’t die with Kevin Durant dropping a couple 3s, Westbrook scoring on a drive and Serge Ibaka hitting a jumper, but the hole was too big to climb out of.
That’s the quick summary of the game though. There’s a lot more to it.
Everyone is talking about Westbrook and his 30 shots. Talking about the forced 3-pointer that was all air with OKC down 3 in the final seconds. Talking about the fact Durant didn’t see the ball on two of the Thunder’s biggest possessions late. And how can I argue with the logic? KD is the team’s best player. Westbrook is not. Therefore, give the ball to Durant. I agree. It’s obvious. It makes sense.
However, I’m not going to dog Westbrook for it that much. I blame him more for the way the first half went than anything else. The ball rarely moved, the team didn’t appear focused and the Thunder blew a good opportunity to be up at least two possessions heading to the break. The tone was set early on. This was a Russell Westbrook night.
I think he sensed what I was seeing. The Thunder didn’t look comfortable in their own skin. They were throwing the ball away, taking dumb shots, forcing things and not moving off the ball. So he tried to take over a bit. And it’s difficult for Westbrook to turn it on in spurts. That’s the ideal Westbrook. The guy that can sense that moment where his team needs his offensive spark and give it for a few minutes and then turn the game back over to the natural rhythm and flow. But he’s not there yet. He’s just 22 and he’s still figuring all that out.
We’ve seen the Good Russ and Bad Russ a lot. And I’ve said it a hundred times: to get Good Russ, sometimes you live with Bad Russ. He’s not a perfect player. He’s still developing. This wasn’t his finest hour but he was trying to win the game. That’s what he had on his mind. Did KD need a few more touches? Absolutely. But to knee-jerk and start saying stupid things about Westbrook because of this game like “he’s not a point guard!” or “play Maynor!” is beyond ignorant.
With Westbrook, it’s all about accepting what he is. It’s like the scene in Band of Brothers when Speirs tells that one guy crying in the foxhole, “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function.” Westbrook isn’t a “true” point guard. He never will be. The sooner you accept that fact, the sooner you’ll be able to appreciate what he is. A darn good basketball player that still has some room to grow.
(One thing: You’re going to tell me you didn’t think Westbrook’s 3 with the Thunder trailing 98-96 with 30 seconds left wasn’t going in? I’ve seen him hit a shot just like that about 10 times this season. I trusted him to take it. He looked for Durant, but that option wasn’t there. So with the clock pressing on him, he tried to make a play. And with the ball in flight, I thought it was dropping through. Now the one with seven seconds left? That was bad.)
I understand there will be some real frustration after this game because it certainly feels like the Thunder missed an open opportunity to finish things off. OKC played its worst game of the series. And if you’re like me, there’s this little nagging thought in the back of your head that makes you very nervous about Wednesday night. OKC had won five straight against Denver and beating anyone that many times is difficult. But now I fear the Nuggets shaking that monkey off and finding themselves a bit. I fear Danilo Gallinari and the way he got it going. I fear J.R. Smith a little more. I fear the speed of Ty Lawson more than yesterday. The Thunder’s up 3-1 and that’s a very good position to be in heading back to OKC, but still, it’s hard to feel comfortable until that fourth win is completely sealed up. You give any team air — much less a team with Denver’s talent — and you open up the chance for disaster.
With all that said, we’re talking about the Thunder coming up a bit short of a sweep. And in a game I think we’d all agree they played pretty poorly in too. Don’t forget this is a roster of kids. This was the first crack at trying to finish a series off and two things were working against them: 1) It was on the road and 2) It was against a pretty good team that has too much pride to be swept without a fight. Am I frustrated? Heck yes. But that’s just because I feel like I watched a game that the Thunder didn’t play as well as they should. OKC lost a game in which it held the Nuggets 38.6 percent shooting. The Thunder lost because of turnovers, stupid offense, selfishness and because the Nuggets aren’t bad.
Leaving the door slightly ajar for the Nuggets scares me to death, but let’s be honest here — the Thunder are in a pretty good position right now. Monday was a missed opportunity in about 50 different ways, but being the good news is, the Thunder has a chance to learn from the transgressions of this one and finish it off Wednesday. And we can even have a party in OKC after too.
- Once again, it took Westbrook losing his mind a bit, the Thunder turning it over 15 times, missing seven free throws and a real lack of focus for about 42 minutes for the Nuggets to win. The Thunder are a better team. They’ve proven that the five previous meetings. The Nuggets are good enough to win because, you know, they have good players, but if OKC does its thing, there won’t be any issues.
- (That said, I’m still terrified.)
- This game really felt like a college game for a good part. It was a total grind. A simple basket felt like a really big deal.
- There was just a feel to this game early on and it did not favor the Thunder. Denver led 26-20 and it seemed like OKC was down 15 early on. I almost think the Thunder came out swaggerin’ a bit too much. Almost like they expected to just win without putting in the work.
- I have to mention the non-call that still has me griping to my wife, who is actually asleep right now. Kendrick Perkins was tabbed with a technical foul early on for pushing Chris Andersen under the rim. It was, to say the least, a pretty weak technical. But with 15 seconds left and OKC down 101-98, Nene and Perk were tangled a bit after a Ray Felton free throw and it was very clear Nene was holding Perk. Now I think Perk falling down was a bit of acting, but considering the earlier tech call, the fact Nene wasn’t hit was pretty ridiculous. It should’ve at least been called a foul. Denver can have the goaltend from Game 1. I’ll take the non-tech from Game 4.
- Denver’s offensive rebounding in the fourth was killer. The Thunder went small with Collison at the 5 and it only lasted a few possessions. It was to match up with Denver going with Gallinari at the 4, but once Harden got caught on Gallo on a switch and shot right over the top of Harden, Brooks had to go back to the big guys.
- All the talk with Westbrook, honestly the biggest problem I had with him tonight was him complaining about a call late in the fourth and not getting back on defense which allowed a wide open 3 for Gallinari, which he drained. That was just inexcusable.
- Serge Ibaka, once again terrific. 13 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
- KD started the game 2-8 but hit his last six of 10 to finish with 31.
- For as much as people complain about the rip-move, the jump-into-the-defender-when-he’s-in-the-air move is the real disease of basketball.
- What’s up with Ibaka’s tongue wagging?
- I think Dick Stockton wanted us all to fall asleep. Good grief, retire man.
- Anyone know what happened to Wilson Chandler? Why hasn’t he played any in this series?
- Going two-for-one is really stupid if you take a bad shot. Foregoing a possession to end a quarter is fine if you get a good look in the previous one. But a forced jumper just to try and get a look with six seconds left is dumb.
- Kinda could’ve used Eric Maynor’s 3-pointer to end the first quarter, huh? Cut your fingernails next time, Eric.
- Daequan Cook was a big non-factor tonight. He was just 0-1 in the eight minutes he played and stepped out of bounds twice.
- I didn’t think James Harden was at all himself in this one. He just looked entirely unsure of himself. Even his smart extra pass to KD for a big 3 in the second half was fumbled and barely got there. Three turnovers is very unlike him.
It was kind of impressive to see the Thunder battle back over and over again on the road deep into the fourth quarter. They could’ve just packed it in and yet, there they were with chances to win. I think that says a lot about this group. Things don’t come easy. Especially the things you really want. There are lessons to be had here. These playoffs are about a lot more than just beating Denver. And if there’s something to take from this series because of a tough game like tonight, I’m fine with it. The greater good, ya’ll.
If I told you 10 days ago the Thunder would be up three games to one headed back to Oklahoma City, you would’ve been pretty darn psyched, right? That’s what I thought. Not to say I’m not a bit anxious about what’s ahead Wednesday night because a loss there means the Thunder goes back to Denver with the Nuggets having a chance to force a Game 7, but still, OKC is in a great position. This one is a bang-your-head-on-the-coffee-table type of game, but it’s over. There’s another chance to finish things off in less than 48 hours. Learn from these mistakes and move on.
Next up: Game 5 at home Wednesday.