I’ll be right back. I’m going to be outside hitting myself in the face with a claw hammer.
So the Thunder blew a 16-point second half lead in a pivotal Game 3 to lose in overtime to the Grizzlies in overtime 101-93 and go down two games to one. Also of note: The Thunder scored just 10 points in the fourth quarter and actually — you won’t believe this — went over eight minutes without a basket. They missed 11 straight shots. Hang on, I’m going to need that claw hammer again.
It’s a shame for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the Thunder looked like a dominant, well-oiled championship contender for about the first 42 minutes. The interior defense was awesome. The offense was executing. Shots were going in. The Thunder were basically just whipping the Grizzlies. There was a real, palpable edge to the team and it just looked like they were going to walk to an excellent Game 3 win.
But those last six minutes. Basically, to put it bluntly, everything just went to hell.
Now if you’re looking for someone to heap blame on Russell Westbrook here and point all at him for blowing this game, stop reading. Because I just won’t do it. Does he deserve a big slice of blame? Definitely. Probably one right out of the middle of the pie. He didn’t do the things those last six minutes that he had done up to that point. The first 42 minutes, he was fantastic. Setting up teammates, scoring in rhythm, making good decisions — it was beautiful. But with the Thunder trying to hang on a lead, a lot of that flew right out the door.
Not entirely because of Westbrook though. Again, he’s absolutely got blood on his hands. He might even be holding the knife. He entered the fourth quarter with 12 assists and finished the game with that number. That’s all on him. But I refuse to pin this whole thing on him.
What the Thunder looked like those last few minutes was a team up by a touchdown content to just run the ball three times into an eight-man front and punt. They wound the clock down with a lot of dribbling, then brought Kevin Durant to the top of the key and tried to isolate him there. But because of great ball denial, some un-called fouling and the fact Durant didn’t position well enough to actually receive the ball, Westbrook was basically left with a ticking time bomb in his hands most of the time. The play failed and he was left standing there having to make a play with five on the shot clock.
Where Westbrook failed was that he then put his nose down and tried to just make a play on his own. It was all up to him after the initial, one-option play failed, but he still could have drawn the defense and dished. He settled instead for jumpers — mostly good looks too, I’d say — that he didn’t make. The offense went entirely stale, the ball stopped and nobody moved. Is that Westbrook’s fault? Or is it a product of the play call coming from the sideline? That’s the question I’m asking right now.
Everyone is griping that Durant didn’t see the ball much in those moments, but again, he’s in no position to score. The Thunder basically ran the same stuff that killed Denver in Game 5 where KD took over. Difference here was Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler weren’t on Durant. Tony Allen is terrific in ball denial and can stop Durant’s dribble. KD just doesn’t have the ability to put the ball on the floor more than twice and get a good shot over Allen. It’s not happening.
But at any point did you really see a time where KD was open and Westbrook truly looked him off? What I saw was Durant hovering around the 3-point line with his hand up, not moving. I mean with four on the shot clock, what do you want Westbrook to do? Kick it out there and let KD fire from 30 feet? Why does KD deserve the ball if he’s 30 feet from the basket, not moving and covered? How is that Westbrook being a bad point guard?
I know I’ve seen Westbrook succeed in exactly what he tried to do tonight at least 20 times during the regular season. I’ve seen him take over when the other options (or this case, option) was locked down. It’s the great luxury the Thunder’s had all season long and the reason this team won 55 games.
Because let’s face it, it’s not like KD was absolutely pouring it on the Grizzlies and Westbrook was waving him off. Durant finished the game just 2-11 from the floor and I’m not sure he got a clean look in the bunch. What people tell me about that though, is that’s somehow Westbrook’s fault. You’ve got to get him in a better position to score! You’ve got to set up teammates! You’ve got to create better looks! True, yes. But what do you want Westbrook to do — shoot and make KD’s shots for him too? At some point, it’s about Durant getting himself open. If you’re open, Russ will find you. Those last five minutes, nobody was. Who the majority is blaming for that is Westbrook, but I choose not to. It was horrific team offense and questionable play-calling from Brooks. Not just Westbrook playing hero and trying to start some alpha dog battle, as most would make you think.
My biggest issue with those last few minutes was, well, the ignorant decision to leave James Harden on the bench. Thabo Sefolosha saw the minutes instead. Brooks’ reasoning was clearly because O.J. Mayo got the best of Harden and sparked an 8-0 run that put the Grizzlies back in the game, but the issue was more on the offensive end after the Grizzlies got back in the game. The defense let them in, the offense failed to close them. Harden is that third option to look at when the first KD play got snuffed out. I mean, he comes in for overtime and immediately sets up Nick Collison twice. WHY WASN’T HE IN EARLIER? It really just makes no sense whatsoever to me. Harden is a great reversal option and secondary pick-and-roll player. And yet he sat on the bench while Thabo stood aimlessly in a corner. I’ll put it bluntly: stupid.
In the end, the Thunder lost their third overtime game of the year (second to Memphis) and now is in a tough spot with a huge Game 4 ahead. It’s a matter of how they’ll respond. I know you probably feel like it is right now, but this series isn’t over. The Thunder need to just take one game in Memphis to have a chance to win. This puts OKC in a difficult position, especially considering the circumstances, but it’s not over. The Thunder have always bounced back extremely well and now they’ll have to answer all those questions again about chemistry, trust and whatever else.
If you’re still on the Sam Presti Development Train, then you might even think this could be a good thing for this young group. They responded well to the Game 4 loss in Denver. Now how do they come back from choking away a pivotal playoff game? The Game 4 in Denver wasn’t a choke, it was just a bad game. This one, the Thunder had. Like pretty much had in every way. And they gave it away. An excellent 42 minutes of basketball spoiled by bad rebounding, bad defense and terrible offense. They very may well crumple mentally and drop a stinker in Game 4. Or they come back and get the one win they needed and bring a 2-2 tie back to OKC. It’s up to them at this point. I for one know they’re certainly capable of it.
- The biggest, most important stat of this game: KD was 0-1 from the free throw line. He had some previous streak of a couple hundred straight games with a make from the stripe. And somehow, in this game, that ended. In a game where Tony Allen and Shane Battier basically crawled inside of KD’s jersey and built a small campfire.
- On that note: OKC took 23 free throws, Memphis 44. OKC committed 30 fouls, Memphis 17. Now this was an extremely physical game and the Thunder got away with about 75 fouls on Zach Randolph, but that difference is pretty striking to me. And a big reason the Thunder lost this game. The offense went bad and unlike so many games this year, they couldn’t rely on the free throw line to save them.
- OK, prepare for a comparison you’re going to hate, but more on Westbrook: If Dwyane Wade did exactly what Westbrook did in this game, would everyone freak out? I realize Russ isn’t Wade, but he is an All-Star and averaging better than 20 a game this season. But if Wade tried to take over and LeBron was left standing with a hand up on the 3-point line, would we all yell and curse his name? Again, the comparison isn’t entirely accurate, but I think you see my point.
- Zach Randolph went for 21-21. That’s pretty big time. OKC’s defense was great on him again though as he was just 8-22 from the floor.
- Amazing with how bad the Thunder played the fourth quarter that if Durant drops that shot with four seconds left, we’re all so very, very happy.
- Also on that: I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say during the regular season when a key final possession failed because of a KD jumper that they wish Westbrook took more a clutch scorer role in those situations. I bet you said it at some point when you watched Durant clang a fadeaway 22-footer. Westbrook can get himself good looks at any point. It’s a matter of him making it. And that shot Durant was forced to take to end the fourth was what he would’ve been left with if the Thunder forced it to him over and over those final five minutes.
- I have to say it again: Why the Thunder quit running the offense late in the fourth is beyond me. Maybe it was indeed Westbrook, but it really appeared to be more a product of the Thunder trying to kill clock, get the ball to KD and let him finish. It’s a good plan in principle, but it didn’t work. The cutting, moving, screening and slashing disappeared.
- Let me repeat this too: If you want Russell Westbrook to be a so-called “pure” point guard, I’d give up. He’s never been a point guard. Probably never will be one. Once you accept that fact… blah blah blah.
- The Thunder did a great job of taking care of the ball most of the game, but turned it over a handful of times late. OKC finished with 14 total and only forced nine from Memphis, which was big.
- I think it’s a shame that a large part of the criticism of Westbrook stems solely from the fact that No. 35 is on the floor with him. I understand that reasoning, of course, but it’s not at all fair in my mind. Why does Derrick Rose get a free pass from dominating the ball and taking bad shots? Only because Durant isn’t on his team? That’s what people always tell me but it’s not like Rose is playing with four janitors. It’s the curse of being a scoring point guard. If someone were curling off a screen and doinking shots while Durant stood idly by, I don’t think we’d say near as much about it.
- Serge Ibaka rolled his ankle again and looked to be hurt pretty bad. But he returned quickly and finished the game. I would assume he’s a question mark for Game 4 though.
- Hamed Haddadi: 5-6 at the line. Kevin Freaking Durant: 0-1.
- You know how we often yell “No no no no YES!” with Russell Westbrook when he pulls up for a questionable shot? I have that same reaction pretty much every time Perk gets it in the post.
- Nice adjustment by Lionel Hollins to go with Mayo to start the second half over Sam Young. OKC was entirely sagging off Young and packing things inside. Mayo spaced things a bit.
- Memphis’s bench outscored OKC’s 32-22 in this one. Nothing from Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook was 0-3 and Nazr Mohammed appeared to be lacking some toughness.
I know you won’t believe it and I understand because I certainly feel it too, but the Thunder could very well be just fine. Again, I’m repeating it almost to just convince myself but a win in Game 4 and everything is all good. This loss stings because Game 4 could’ve been a chance to take complete control of the series and OKC blew it with today’s game, but hope is very far from lost. This is still a series. The Thunder are still right there. Don’t give up on them just because of a terrible five minutes.
Next up: Game 4 in Memphis Monday night.