I wrote last week about wanting to see some growth here in April compared to last season’s slight limp to the finish line. After last night’s win over the Lakers, I’m entirely satisfied.
The way OKC hammered the Lakers in the final six minutes last night was kind of incredible.
Once OKC’s starters returned with 5:45 on the clock, the Thunder outscored L.A. 22-9 in that stretch. The defense completely ramped up but even better, the offensive like, executed in the halfcourt. It was a beautiful thing.
As a result, the Thunder doubled up L.A. 32-16 in the fourth.
Like I did after the impressive close of the Heat a month ago, I wanted to look back on just how the Thunder did it.
5:45, Q4: After a little extended play because there wasn’t a whistle to let them back in, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins all check back in the game.
I skipped past it, but much like the Miami game, the Thunder’s bench did outstanding work over the first half of this quarter. The Thunder began the quarter trailing by two, but Steve Blake popped a 3 to put the Lakers up five almost right as the fourth started. So over the next six minutes, OKC allowed just four points. Three times the Thunder went down by five, but the bench turned a 97-92 Laker lead into a 98-97 one when the cavalry checked back in.
And almost like a clear message sent, the first play out of the break OKC ran a crisp play with Nick Collison setting a nice on-ball screen for Durant who got right to the elbow and dropped a nice jumper. OKC 100, L.A. 97.
4:15: Here’s where thing appeared to get scary. Kobe got inside and made a really tough layup, Russell Westbrook missed a wide open 12-foot jumper and then Andrew Bynum scored inside. After Durant’s jumper, the Lakers came right back to go up 101-100.
The Thunder was in a position where they needed a basket badly. The ball moved well on the next possession with Kendrick Perkins finding Collison on a nice pass inside. Collison was entirely stuffed by Bynum, but OKC received a gift of a call putting Collison at the line. He hit one to tie the game.
I think this sequence was quietly very important because the Thunder really needed a basket to re-establish things after the four straight by L.A. Shame it came on a bad call, but it happens and it was big for OKC.
3:31: Stop, Westbrook missed a 3 but the ball went out on Derek Fisher, then Westbrook found Collison cutting beautifully for a dunk. However, Kobe came back the next possession and did what he tends to do as he finished a tough and-1 layup to put the Lakers back up by one.
2:59: That leads to the biggest play of the game. Durant catches the ball on the wing and gets a screen from Collison that forces Pau Gasol to switch. KD drove hard baseline but Gasol did a nice job sealing it off. Durant had to find someone before he fell out of bounds and standing alone on the right wing was Thabo.
Here’s where it got fun. What were YOU thinking when Thabo caught that pass? You have three choices any time Thabo catches a pass and is open for 3: A) Shoot it! B) Pass it! C) Think about it for a second, let the defense close on you, then take a more contested shot than you had one second ago.
My first instinct last night when it happened was Shoot It! but as soon as he went into his motion I thought, “Aww man.” But here’s the thing: You HAVE to take that shot if you’re Thabo. Otherwise, you truly have no reason to be on the floor. Yes, he’s a good defender on Kobe, but if you’re not even willing to take an open shot in a big spot, you’ve got to go sit down. I could’ve lived with a miss, I really could’ve. I know some would have said, “Oh, how about that Thabo 3 with three minutes left? What a dumb shot.” But it would’ve been a good one to me. Make or miss, it was the right play.
2:59: Oh, I forgot: He made it. OKC up 106-104.
1:47: Small sequence here: Westbrook sniffs out a bad pass at halfcourt well and Fisher fouls him on it. We got to the under three timeout and immediately when play starts back up, KD drops just a dirty 20-footer off a screen at the top of the key. Big shot.
Westbrook picks Gasol’s pocket in the post and then there’s a crazy scramble for the ball that ends up with OKC. With an extra long possession, the Thunder ends up with a good shot from Westbrook who misses in the lane. Collison rebounds but is stripped. Another scramble. Lakers get it, timeout.
That whole sequence resulted in just a 2-0 edge for OKC, but it also wasted more than a minute of play. Small, but important.
1:11: Here’s where OKC cranked it up. Thabo forced Kobe into a turnover and the next possession Westbrook got to the rim to put OKC up six with a little more than a minute left.
On the Lakers next trip, they lost their dang minds. Ron Artest pulled a Ron Artest and chucked a deep airball from 3 with 14 on the shot clock. The Lakers got it back, to which Kobe chucked a stupid 3 from the corner. All air.
(Best part was the cut to Serge Ibaka clapping like a madman on the bench after it. Ibaka does more fistpumps per 36 minutes than any other player in the league. I’m convinced.)
I have no idea what they were doing there.
And that exchange turned to be costly.
The Thunder went down the floor, drained the clock a bit and Westbrook stop, popped and dropped an and-1 3 with five on the 24 right in Kobe’s face. Game over kiddos. Thanks for coming out tonight and have a safe trip home. Just like that, OKC 114, L.A. 104.
Then it was a couple free throws to close it out. (To which, why in the heck was Ron Artest fouling at the end? Down 12 with 15 seconds left? Not even Reggie Miller is bringing you back from that. Yet he fouled Thabo and then fouled Durant with 1.5 seconds left. I guess the explanation is, as always, it’s Ron Artest. Brian Davis guess that maybe it was a chance to give Durant a 30-point game. Yeah, I don’t think Ron-Ron was interested in doing KD that solid.)
In the end, it was a 17-5 run over the last two minutes to close it. Impressive offense, impressive defense, great focus, great trust of teammates and a great win.
It was a game where the Thunder shot the ball really well and that’s a major reason they won. But those last six minutes were just huge. OKC never lost faith and kept that same swagger and confidence it had built up from the first half and never wavered.